There seemed to be no doubt that Mike Adams was a productive journalist, even if his beat was a bit obscure: the Central Basin Municipal Water District.
In recent months, he churned out more than 20 stories on the water wholesaler based in southeast Los Angeles. He wrote about recycled water that kept the grass green on street medians and parks. About the computer system a college used to irrigate its landscaping. About a water-saving youth soccer field.
The only mystery, really, was Adams himself. The Times could not find evidence he exists.
Adams' stories were published on the website News Hawks Review after Central Basin agreed to pay up to nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money to public relations consultant Ed Coghlan. Under the deal, Coghlan said he would produce promotional stories about the district that would be indexed on Google News.
The district, which sells water to cities and water companies in Southeast Los Angeles County and serves a total of more than 2 million residents, has come under criticism for the unusual arrangement.
Central Basin staffers, in recommending the agreement with Coghlan to the board of directors, said the stories would enhance the district's image and would be written by experienced journalists.
And on paper, Adams fit that bill.
A biography on News Hawks described him as a former magazine writer and TV veteran who had a degree in construction sciences from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. But his background in journalism could not be verified, and Westminster's registrar, Mindy Wennergren, said the school has never offered a degree in construction sciences.
News Hawks also presented a picture of Adams, showing a stoic man with a gray beard and a black cowboy hat. A reader notified The Times that the photo was a stock image used to demonstrate editing techniques on websites such as deviantart.com.
From there, the picture was traced to photographer Leroy Skalstad, who said he took the shot at a Milwaukee food bank last year and posted it to several photo-sharing websites. He said the subject of the picture is a man nicknamed "Cobra."
Three people written about in Adams' stories say they never actually met him, but they recalled being interviewed by Coghlan, the public relations consultant working for Central Basin.
The Times could not locate other writers listed on News Hawks or confirm biographical information presented on the site.
Two writers credited for reporting about Central Basin, Charles Lindy and Kara Degete, were listed as veterans in business and political journalism, respectively. But The Times could not confirm their past work experience, and their photos, like the picture of Adams, were also found on other stock photo websites.
News Hawks stated that its editor in chief, Ruth Gramma, had more than 30 years' experience in print journalism. But no record of a person with that name could be found, and searches in multiple article databases produced no evidence of her work.
The site also claimed its award-winning general assignment reporter, Hannah Grimm, was a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. But Bill Santin, of Columbia's Registrar's Office, said no person of that name has graduated from the school in the last 100 years.
After The Times began inquiring about Adams, News Hawks removed his name and image from the site. His stories are now credited to "publisher." The directory that included the biographies of Gramma, Grimm, Lindy and Degete has also been taken down and replaced with a different list of staff members.
Central Basin officials have declined numerous requests to comment on The Times' questions about Adams and News Hawks and twice delayed responses to public records requests from the newspaper. Some of those records requests are still outstanding.
When approached at a recent town hall meeting, general manager Art Aguilar told a reporter he was "not comfortable" talking to the paper about News Hawks.
"We've given you all the information we have," he said.
Authors of stories promoting water district can't be found
Biographical information can't be confirmed about journalists with the website News Hawks Review, whose stories promoted the Central Basin Municipal Water District.
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