As it happens, Huntsman’s brother – prominent politician and businessman Jon Huntsman – had unsuccessfully challenged Cox the previous year for the Republican nomination for governor.
Paul Huntsman’s continued efforts to investigate the man who defeated his brother unsettled many in the Tribune newsroom. Several reporters — who asked not to be named, to avoid clashing with Huntsman — fear the president’s actions are the result of an alleged rivalry between Cox’s family and Huntsman, one of the wealthiest and of the most important in the state. Some believe the newsroom’s independence is compromised by the very existence of Huntsman’s investigative firm, which he named Jittai, using a Japanese word that can mean “actual state” or “actual condition.” “.
The Tribune used Jittai’s findings in several news stories, and Huntsman wrote two articles outlining his reasons for starting the company.
In an interview with The Washington Post, the president strongly denied using his company or the newspaper on his brother’s behalf, and said Jittai’s purpose was to expose mismanagement and corruption in the public health system. of State. Some of the companies Jittai sought to investigate raised the same concern. “I’m shocked,” Huntsman said. “Given the scale of these problems, all they can come up with is to shoot my brother Jon.”
Huntsman is something of a hero among Salt Lake City reporters. He took charge of the Tribune in 2016 as it faced a severe financial downturn. The Tribune reported at the time that Huntsman’s family bought the paper, but Huntsman said he used his own funds. Three years later, he made it the first metropolitan nonprofit newspaper in the United States, with Huntsman serving as chairman of an 11-person board of directors.
He said the Tribune has since used tax-deductible grants and public donations to help stabilize its finances.
But Huntsman’s leadership has sometimes caused friction in the newsroom. The newspaper’s editor, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, resigned in August 2020, several weeks after the end of the Republican gubernatorial primary and months before Huntsman announced the creation of Jittai. She cited “differences of opinion” with Huntsman over “newsroom coverage, management and policies”.
People inside and outside the newspaper interpreted Napier-Pearce’s departure comments as veiled criticism of Huntsman’s alleged involvement in campaign coverage. “I heard there was dissatisfaction from the top about our coverage of the campaign [and] she was the human shield that protected us from this,” Tribune columnist Robert Gehrke wrote on Twitter at the time. “Our reporters were pros and did their job.”
Napier-Pearce eventually became a spokesperson for Cox and a senior adviser. Both she and the governor’s office declined to comment on the report.
Huntsman said he “always kept an arm’s length relationship” with the Tribune’s press team regarding coverage involving his brother Jon, who served as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009. served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and China and ran for president in 2012 before attempting to return for governor in 2020.
Paul Huntsman said he formed Jittai the following spring, several months after his brother conceded to Cox in July 2020, using several hundred thousand dollars of his own money. He did it, he said, because he didn’t believe the Tribune’s 80-member newsroom had the depth and expertise to tackle the records searches involved in the investigation of state testing contracts.
“There’s a lack of financial savvy” among news crews, Huntsman told the Post. “This story requires expertise in securities fraud, healthcare fraud. This requires technical and scientific knowledge. … I would like to see [reporters] broaden their skills. It goes beyond liberal arts degrees.
With many years of experience managing the Huntsman family’s investment portfolio, he said, “It was more natural, given my background, to come in and do it myself. We could do it a lot quicker than putting it” back to the newsroom.
He said Jittai – which has no full-time staff or regular pay but contracts with attorneys for its projects – has filed hundreds of requests under the State Public Records Act to records of the testing program operated by Cox, as well as comparable programs in other states. . The company also alleged in a lawsuit last year that Cox unlawfully delayed access to public records related to Utah’s pandemic response.
Huntsman has pledged to make the findings public. Some of the information Jittai has unearthed has already made its way into the journal he presides over.
Lauren Gustus, who succeeded Napier-Pearce as editor, acknowledged that the Tribune used information from the Huntsman company. But, she says, “we treated [Jittai] as a source, independently verifying these public records by requesting them ourselves. »
Among at least four Tribune articles that used Jittai’s material was one published last year about the main contractor for Utah’s coronavirus testing program, Nomi Health, and a contractor who saw its stock price and earnings rise despite the provision of questionably accurate coronavirus tests.
This story — as well as follow-ups, including one seeking donations for the paper — did not mention Jittai’s involvement in the reporting. Huntsman revealed his company’s role in a column a month later. (Gustus said Friday that the newspaper would add notes to previous articles that did not mention Jittai.)
In an open letter to the Tribune newsroom last month, Nomi chief executive Mark Newman accused Huntsman of trying to “question” his brother’s election defeat.
“There is a fine line between a healthy skepticism necessary to hold public institutions accountable and a purely selfish, self-interested cynicism designed to advance ulterior motives,” he wrote. “We believe your team in the newsroom should immediately part ways with Paul Huntsman and his special unit of writers, lawyers and publicists.”
Huntsman insisted that the state’s contracting and testing issues transcended any political rivalry.
He said he had begun the investigative effort to restore “trust and integrity” and “transparency” to state procurement procedures, which he said were riddled with opacity, cronyism and other bad practices during the pandemic rush.
Questions about the design and implementation of the state program, known as TestUtah, predate Huntsman and Jittai’s involvement. Tribune reporters began following the story early in the pandemic; a report released in May 2020, for example, highlighted the rush to award more than $84 million in untendered contracts. “Lawmakers and whistleblowers are increasingly demanding answers about how the state awarded lucrative contracts and handled taxpayer dollars during the emergency,” the article said.
As Huntsman wrote last summer in a column revealing Jittai’s founding, “I am a Utah taxpayer who is not amused when state government and the private sector misuse public funds, some of which I believe went for private purposes.”
Gustus said that neither Huntsman nor anyone else on the Tribune’s board had ever ordered the newspaper to publish an article, nor reviewed a story before it was published. She described Jittai as another source of information.
“Would I like to have more people on our team who can do this kind of reporting?” she asked. “Absoutely.”
Nevertheless, Tribune reporters were recently able to push the test story forward on their own. On Thursday, the newspaper reported that federal investigators have concluded that the state’s testing program’s flawed work poses “an imminent threat” to public health. He reported an inspector found “contaminated” test kits on a lab table alongside yogurt, rice cakes and a bag of Cheez-Its.
None of the reporting in this story was based on information from Jittai.