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.
The next day, Central Basin public affairs manager Valerie Howard said she needed more time to determine whether the district could respond to The Times' requests, which were originally submitted in mid-September.
In news releases and a letter to The Times, Aguilar had defended the hiring of Coghlan, calling his contract "entirely appropriate."
Central Basin officials won't say whether they knew the identities of the News Hawks reporters either before or after they awarded the contract to Coghlan. But Aguilar, Howard and two other top officials were quoted in Adams' stories, and the district highlighted the pieces on an "In The News" section of its own website.
Google News removed News Hawks from its index after The Times first reported on Coghlan's contract in September, saying the site had violated Google's guidelines.
Some of the people quoted in News Hawks stories credited to Adams were critical of the way their interviews were handled.
William Patzert, a NASA scientist who delivered a speech on climate change at Central Basin's headquarters in April, said he met with Coghlan during his visit but was later written about in a News Hawks story credited to Adams.
After reading about Coghlan's contract with Central Basin, Patzert said he thought the district had "crossed the line." He later canceled an appearance at an event sponsored by the water district.
"I feel like I sort of got used by Central Basin," he said.
Two other water officials written about on News Hawks Review recounted similar stories: They remembered being interviewed by Coghlan during their visits to Central Basin but were later written about in articles under Adams' name.
Joe Grindstaff, a state water official who was quoted in one of Adams' stories, said he was perplexed by Central Basin's involvement with the website.
"It's not how I would expect [Central Basin] to do business, and it's certainly not how I've seen other public agencies doing business," he said.
Central Basin has also received criticism from some who say their surcharges for water are too high — an accusation the district strongly denies.
In its budget documents, Central Basin said its public affairs department serves an "integral function" in communicating water policy to the community.
District officials refused to address specific questions about how much they spend on public relations, making it difficult to establish precise comparisons with other agencies.
Neither the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which is larger than Central Basin, nor the neighboring West Basin Municipal Water District uses outside media consultants, officials from those agencies said.
Central Basin contracted directly with Coghlan, who was listed as a reporter on News Hawks and whose stories are still on the site. The water district's board has approved $172,500 in payments to Coghlan as well as a 10% contingency fee. The district said it had paid Coghlan $70,000 as of Sept. 14. Coghlan declined interview requests for this article.
Tony Marino, the News Hawks publisher, declined to comment on Mike Adams and the other people previously listed as part of the site's staff. He told The Times in a previous interview that he had complete editorial control over the site and that Coghlan only helped him find stories.
After The Times' first article, Marino defended News Hawks in an email to the newspaper: "We did stories that were totally original.... We published about subjects that the L.A. Times and other 'old media' would never even think about."
Records show that Coghlan and Marino are partners in a corporation based in Arizona, where Marino runs an Internet marketing business. Earlier this year they announced a venture called XNet News, which would "aim specific news at specific users," according to a press release. The announcement described Marino and Coghlan as "former TV news directors, reporters and total news junkies."
Earlier this year, Coghlan himself reported a series of News Hawks articles on the University of Idaho Athletics Department as part of a $5,000 contract with the school. Athletic Director Rob Spear said the deal was dropped in June because of a lack of funding, but the stories are still available online.
Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times