Media focus on plagiarism overshadows big underlying issue of fraud

It’s natural that journalists would be focusing on plagiarism in the strange story of Scott McInnis, the Hasan Family Foundation, and the water articles. Writers think about plagiarism all the time. And McInnis’ assignment as a Hasan Fellow was mostly to write a “series of in-depth articles on water.”

But what’s more germane, going forward, is probably fraud, not plagiarism. And this is a story line that journalists should track closely.

That’s because McInnis had apparently entered into a contract with the Hasan Family Foundation to write the water articles. McInnis is correct when he says that the articles were never published, but, still, McInnis probably had a contractual agreement with the foundation to produce original articles, not to copy Judge Gregory Hobbs’ work.

His plagiarized articles appear to constitute a breach of his contract, and breach-of-contract is a common type of fraud.  Even if the work was being done for a foundation, it was a business transaction, and in the business world, unlike the day-to-day world journalists occupy, breach of contract, not plagiarism, rules the day.

And the Hasans look like they are in just the right mood to file the civil fraud lawsuit, given that they’re pissed (“shocked, angry, and disappointed,” according to an Hasan news release), and they’re conducting an internal investigation that might result in their asking for their money back from McInnis.

One might think McInnis would be jumping head over heels to calm the Hasans, given the media frenzy that would emerge from a lawsuit, but not really.

On the Caplis and Silverman show yesterday, McInnis stopped short of promising to return the money to the Hasans, if necessary, though he did say he’d try to work things out with them.

Silverman: Are you going to give the Hasan family their money back?

McInnis: As I say, I’m going to sit down and talk with them and do what we need to do to make it right.

To win a fraud case against McInnis, according to lawyers I spoke with, the foundation would have to prove four general elements, which hinge on  whether McInnis knew his articles were plagiarized. 

Asked by Craig Silverman yesterday whether he had signed a form stating that his work was “original,” McInnis said no.  But as has been widely reported, a 2005 memo submitted to “Seeme Hasan, Chairwoman; Hasan Foundation” under the name of “Scott McInnis, Senior Fellow” states, “All the Articles are original and not reprinted from any other source.”

McInnis is claiming that his researcher made the writing mistakes that resulted in the plagiarism. This would make McInnis’ deceit unintentional.  But his researcher, Rolly Fischer, is blaming McInnis for the plagiarism, so there looks to be lots of material for a court fight, with McInnis, Fischer and the Hasans as the star witnesses.

“A civil fraud claim by the Hasan Foundation is one of many things that Scott McInnis needs to be worried about today,” Craig Silverman wrote me via email. “$300,000 is a lot of money to make, and a lot of money to return.  If a lawsuit happens, then there are the costs and attorney fees to be considered. If this is fully played out,there would be brutal lengthy depositions and other forms of discovery before you ever get close to a trial.”

Drew Dougherty, media contact for the Hasans, told me today that the foundation will not make any decisions about next steps until after its internal investigation is completed.

Journalists should discuss the fraud option with lawyers and the Hasans themselves, as this story plays out.

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