After Killing Investigation, Bloomberg News Sought To Silence Reporter's Wife The investigation into Chinese political elites would "wipe out everything we've tried to build there," Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor-in-chief at the time, said on audiotape obtained by NPR.
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Bloomberg News Killed Investigation, Fired Reporter, Then Sought To Silence His Wife

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Bloomberg News Killed Investigation, Fired Reporter, Then Sought To Silence His Wife

Bloomberg News Killed Investigation, Fired Reporter, Then Sought To Silence His Wife

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Mike Bloomberg's brief presidential bid led to tough scrutiny, particularly about his company's frequent reliance on nondisclosure agreements for employees. One of the people under a nondisclosure agreement is a former employee who years ago worked on an investigative story about Chinese leaders. Bloomberg News killed that story. It also tried to silence his spouse. NPR's David Folkenflik reveals what happened.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: At a February debate, Elizabeth Warren challenged Bloomberg - what about complaints about him?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?

(APPLAUSE)

FOLKENFLIK: Bloomberg tried to move past it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE BLOOMBERG: We have a very few nondisclosure agreements.

WARREN: How many is that?

BLOOMBERG: Let me finish.

FOLKENFLIK: Bloomberg's blase response outraged the writer Leta Hong Fincher - full disclosure, a Warren supporter. Fincher points to the widespread use of such NDAs by the company Bloomberg founded. The company uses them to handle complaints of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment, according to published reports. Fincher's complaint is not that.

LETA HONG FINCHER: I don't know exactly what happened to those women, but I do know how incredibly terrifying it is to be threatened and bullied into signing a nondisclosure agreement.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2013, Fincher's husband, Michael Forsythe was a reporter for Bloomberg News in Beijing. Bloomberg had already published his team's investigation into the wealth of the families of Communist Party leaders. The Chinese ambassador had warned the company against publishing. Death threats followed. Fincher and Forsythe moved to Hong Kong, yet the team kept reporting.

FINCHER: He continued to do an investigation. And it was that story, this story on Wang Jianlin, China's wealthiest man, and his ties to senior Chinese Communist leaders, including Xi Jinping.

FOLKENFLIK: Xi had just become president of China.

FINCHER: And I saw these emails from the editors praising it...

FOLKENFLIK: Meaning the reporting.

FINCHER: ...Saying that, yeah, it's - we're really excited about this. We can't wait to, you know, move it forward.

FOLKENFLIK: Three former Bloomberg journalists verified this account. After that, however, radio silence. The story never ran.

FINCHER: So Mike...

FOLKENFLIK: Her husband.

FINCHER: Mike and some of the other reporters and editors who had been working on this story just were asking for answers about why was this story killed.

FOLKENFLIK: The famously intense founding editor in chief of Bloomberg News finally weighed in - that's Matthew Winkler. Back then, two editors told me the story needed work. That's not the reason Winkler cited for killing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW WINKLER: It is, for sure, going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country. So I just don't see that as a story that is justified.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR obtained this recording of Winkler on an October 2013 conference call. Winkler praised the team but warned about covering the Chinese regime, which he called...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINKLER: The Nazis who are in front of us and behind us everywhere. And that's who they are, and we should have no illusions about it.

FOLKENFLIK: The Chinese authorities had searched Bloomberg's bureaus, delayed visas for reporters and ordered state-owned companies not to sign new leases for Bloomberg terminals. The terminals offer subscribers specialized financial data and are the most important source of the company's profits. And China was seen as a growing market and a strategic priority.

Again, Matthew Winkler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINKLER: Use the information that you have in such a way that enables us to report but not kill ourselves in the process.

FOLKENFLIK: Bloomberg News and Winkler, who's retired as editor in chief, declined to comment. In 2013, Mike Bloomberg was mayor of New York City and denied Bloomberg News killed the China story. Two months later, back at the company he founded, asked about the China controversy again, Mike Bloomberg said it was arrogant to impose American values on others.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLOOMBERG: If a country gives you the license to do something with certain restrictions, you have two choices - you either accept the license and do it that way, or you don't do business there.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR also obtained audio of these remarks by Mike Bloomberg to his global newsroom. Bloomberg said the newsroom should be proud of its China coverage, then said all organizations have bad apples. Some staffers thought that was aimed at the China investigative team. Bloomberg News fired Mike Forsythe. He was accused of leaking news of the killed project to other outlets. He landed at The New York Times and would not comment for this story. He signed a nondisclosure agreement with Bloomberg LP.

Lawyers for Bloomberg's company pressured someone else to sign one - Forsythe's wife, Leta Hong Fincher. The company's lawyers threatened to force her to pay a six-figure sum if she didn't agree to keep silent about her husband's work. Here's Fincher.

FINCHER: There was no reason why I should have to sign a nondisclosure agreement because I didn't possess any damaging material about the company.

FOLKENFLIK: Fincher recalls being summoned to the high-rise offices of Bloomberg's Hong Kong lawyers. Her husband was there, too.

FINCHER: And then this lawyer from New York on this - I mean, giant image of his face on the video screen said, but what about all the evidence that's in her head?

FOLKENFLIK: Fincher says she walked out of the conference room and left the building.

FINCHER: They assumed that because I was the wife of their employee - I was the wife; I was just an appendage of their employee. (Laughter) I was not a human being.

FOLKENFLIK: Fincher's a former CNBC correspondent who is finishing up her Ph.D. She bristled and hired top-flight lawyers, and finally, the company let it go. Now Mike Bloomberg has returned to his company once more. But Fincher isn't letting her question go. What else in his newsroom, she asks, is hidden by those nondisclosure agreements?

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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