Pit Bull Journalist Dan Moldea Plays Larry Flynt’s Hired Man

When it comes to targets, Dan Moldea likes to aim high.

As a young freelance reporter, he was beaten up once, and told he would be killed twice, while researching The Hoffa Wars , his hard-boiled, and well-received, 1978 book about the former Teamsters president. He sued The New York Times for libel over an inaccurate book review in 1989 (and lost); sued New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir over a canceled book contract in 1993 (and won); and tried to get Kenneth Starr in trouble last summer by accusing the independent counsel of making it a habit of leaking grand jury information illegally to friendly journalists.

Now, in his latest role as the investigative journalist hired by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt to track down dirt on various as-yet-unnamed right-wingers in Washington, D.C., he’s hit an inside-the-Beltway trifecta. He’s been dismissed by Sam Donaldson on 20/20 as a “self-styled left-wing investigative reporter,” the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation has filed a complaint against him with the Justice Department, and many of his journalist friends are wondering what he’s up to.

“He’d always say, ‘I’m not part of the priesthood, I’m not part of this elite crowd,’” said Steve Emerson, a Washington-based journalist and author who writes about terrorism and has known Mr. Moldea for more than 10 years. “It’s a professional point of pride for him. He is intrinsically anti-elitist.”

As another surprised journalist friend put it, “It’s literally and figuratively below-the-belt journalism. But I don’t hold it against Dan Moldea. I would hold it against others who have other choices.”

These days, Mr. Moldea, 48, doesn’t have the luxury of too many choices. After writing some of the most definitive nonfiction books on the mob around, Mr. Moldea’s career as a maverick journalist and conspiracy investigator took a turn toward the lurid in the last few years, with books like Evidence Dismissed , which he co-wrote with two detectives who investigated the O.J. Simpson trial, and A Washington Tragedy , an investigation of the death of Vince Foster, which the right-wing boutique press Regnery Publishing put out last year. He has a good reputation as a dogged reporter, but after his lawsuit against The Times dragged out and an investigative book about Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination didn’t sell well, Mr. Moldea needed something to sink his teeth into.

Enter Neil Livingstone, a Washington-based security consultant and freelance counterterrorism expert for NBC News. According to a source close to the situation, when Mr. Livingstone was contacted by the Hustler scandal team this past fall to aid their nascent investigation, he put them in touch with Mr. Moldea. Whatever Mr. Moldea thought of Mr. Flynt’s politics and publicity gambit, he’s told friends the job pays rather well. But those friends also say that Mr. Moldea, a self-described liberal Democrat, seems to be motivated by his anger over the way he thinks the independent counsel’s office has railroaded President Clinton. And, apparently, he’s not going to take it anymore.

Mr. Moldea has his own reasons for not commenting on this article. On Jan. 13, he told the Washington Times that if a Republican “hasn’t been shooting his mouth off, we let him go. We’re not going to interfere with his life.” To the hawk-eyed lawyers at the Landmark Legal Foundation, a testy, conservative legal-advocacy group, that sounded like blackmail, and on Jan. 15 they filed their complaint with the Justice Department. That same day, Republican Party chairman Jim Nicholson demanded that the Hustler investigation itself be investigated. On Jan. 18, the Wall Street Journal editorial page weighed in, quoting the same section of Federal code as the Republican National Committee. The Journal declared Mr. Flynt’s project “not only distasteful but unlawful” and accused Mr. Moldea of having “previously worked for the President’s law firm, Williams & Connolly”–an accusation Mr. Moldea has denied.

Roger Simmons, a lawyer at Gordon & Simmons in Frederick, Md., who represents Mr. Moldea, told Off the Record, “That’s so far from the truth, it’s like saying that I fly to the moon every three days.”

“We don’t know anything more than what the Washington Times reported,” said Journal editor Robert Bartley. “Maybe it would have been better if we had said ‘collaborated.’” Williams & Connolly had no comment.

Like almost every aspect of the seemingly never-ending Clinton Administration scandals, the tale of how Mr. Moldea got involved is an invitation to walk through the hall of mirrors that impeachment-crazy Washington has lately become.

Which is to say, Mr. Moldea is not a totally disinterested party in the latest Presidential scandal. Mr. Starr apparently had a hand in the writer’s $10 million libel suit against The Times for its damning review of his 1989 book, Interference , about mob influence on football. After he lost the first round, his case was taken up in 1994 by the Washington, D.C., circuit court of appeals, In 1994, a three-judge panel voted, 2 to 1, to support Mr. Moldea’s appeal. Mr. Starr, who once sat on the Washington circuit court, was by then a lawyer in private practice. But, as it happens, he represented the coalition of media organizations–from Dow Jones & Company to The New Yorker to the PEN American Center–that supported The Times ‘ position that reviews, as opinions, were protected speech. After the 2-to-1 vote, Mr. Starr filed an amicus brief on the newspaper’s behalf, asking for the judgment to be reconsidered. On May 2, 1994, the judges officially refused to look at Mr. Starr’s brief. But a day later, in a highly unusual move, they reversed their earlier opinion, effectively putting an end to Mr. Moldea’s suit. Mr. Starr later went on Court TV and debated Roger Simmons on the merits of the case.

In 1997, Mr. Moldea was approached by Alfred Regnery to write his Vince Foster book. This caused a certain amount of consternation in right-wing circles because Mr. Moldea was chosen over a competing proposal submitted by former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman, which was being shopped around by Lucianne Goldberg. (Mr. Fuhrman had come in for some rough treatment in Mr. Moldea’s 1997 O.J. Simpson book.)

In the process of reporting his Vince Foster book, Mr. Moldea approached the Office of the Independent Counsel to talk to Mr. Starr about his research into the Foster death. (The office had decided that Foster killed himself.) After talking with members of Mr. Starr’s staff, Mr. Moldea came away with the impression that they made a habit of leaking grand jury information to friendly, Starr-approved reporters. He took tapes of his conversations with the independent counsel’s office to Williams & Connelly. “I can tell you for a fact that his only contact with Williams & Connelly was to tell them the content of the tapes,” said Mr. Simmons, “and, in a way, to protect his sources.”

Allan MacDonnell, the Hustler editor who has been overseeing the investigations, said he was not aware of Mr. Moldea’s past history with Mr. Starr when they invited him out to their headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in early November. They did know about his O.J. Simpson book, though. “He has a lot of energy and is very excited about the project,” Mr. MacDonnell said.

As for how he became involved, Mr. Moldea has confirmed he got the gig through a private investigator in Washington. Whether that friend is Mr. Livingstone, he’s not saying. Reached by Off the Record, Mr. Livingstone said, “I don’t talk about business,” but he confirmed that he’s known Mr. Moldea for many years through a Washington writer’s group to which they both belong. When asked about Mr. Livingstone’s possible involvement in the Hustler investigation, Mr. MacDonnell said, “We’re not commenting on that.”

In any case, Mr. Livingstone is an unusual link in this latest save-the-President campaign, given that he’s a former associate of Oliver North’s and was a consultant to the National Security Council when the events that became the Iran-contra scandal were brewing. In 1987, he wrote a piece for National Review backing Mr. North.

All of which leaves Mr. Moldea exposed as the point man in Mr. Flynt’s drive to embarrass as many politicos on Capitol Hill as he can . “Until the Times suit, I never thought of him as a maverick,” said Steve Weinberg, an author and editor of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal who’s known Mr. Moldea for 20 years. “I asked him–I begged him not to do it,” he said of the suit, adding that “it seems like a reasonable assumption” that the suit radicalized him. “It took guts or stupidity to do it.”

“He’s still a solid journalist,” Mr. Weinberg went on. “But he’s taken a lot of risks that other writers wouldn’t have taken … Look at the publisher of his latest book, Regnery. That’s obviously not the publisher he would have preferred.”

If, as Mr. MacDonnell has claimed, “What we’re doing is more a form of vandalism,” it’s going to leave a blot on Mr. Moldea’s record. And it’s going to be an even bigger problem if the accusations don’t prove true. According to Mr. MacDonnell, after Mr. Moldea checks out the tips, the Hustler team goes over them with Mr. Flynt’s attorneys; if they pass muster, they’re released. Mr. MacDonnell said the “Flynt Report,” originally scheduled for the end of January, has been delayed by Mr. Flynt’s pneumonia until February. As for the legal saber-rattling of the Landmark Legal Foundation and the Republican Party’s chairman, Mr. MacDonnell said, “I think the official comment that we have on that is, that’s absurd.”

Mr. Moldea’s lawyer, Mr. Simmons, thinks his client will be protected by the First Amendment. “He’s a meticulous journalist,” he said. “I think the world of Dan. I think he’s doing it with integrity.”

“Everything he put out is all right,” said Dave Robb, a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter and friend of Mr. Moldea’s since the early 1980′s who knew of his involvement with Mr. Flynt from the beginning. “He should be judged by that.”

When Spin editor in chief–and part-owner–Michael Hirschorn got a surprise invitation to breakfast at the aptly named Mark Hotel with the magazine’s majority owner, Robert Miller, on Jan.19, he didn’t think he had anything to worry about. But Mr. Miller, who also controls the hip-hop magazine Blaze and the urban music monthly Vibe , fired him before he’d finished his croissants. Mr. Hirschorn was informed that he will be bought out of his stake in Spin and replaced by former Vibe editor in chief Alan Light. Sources close to the situation say that Mr. Miller is more comfortable with Mr. Light and that he is expected to take the alternative-rock magazine in a less smart-assed, more celebrity-heroic direction

Reached at his office on the afternoon of Jan. 19, Mr. Hirschorn confirmed that he was leaving, though “I don’t know when,” he said. “My current goal is to get out of this job with as much grace as humanly possible given the circumstances.” A spokesman for Miller Publishing Group attributed the switch to “creative differences” and said Mr. Light would be taking over “effective immediately.”

Mr. Hirschorn took over as editor of Spin in June 1997 after Miller Publishing paid $43 million to acquire it. Before that, he’d been executive editor of New York magazine under editor Kurt Andersen. Like Mr. Andersen, who was fired after some disagreements about editorial direction with his bosses, Mr. Hirschorn increased revenues and advertising pages slightly (1998 was up 2.5 percent over 1997; circulation was up a bit, to 535,000 from 508,000) and presided over a pretty devoted staff. But, according to sources at the magazine, Mr. Miller and his editorial director, Time Inc. refugee Gilbert Rogin, didn’t much go for the show Mr. Hirschorn and his merry band of discontented thirtysomethings were putting on. “They’re trying to make it more commercial and probably less sophisticated,” said one disappointed Hirschorn hire of the moves being made by Miller Publishing. “Less quirky.”

A week away from its April close, nobody at the magazine is sure what’s going to happen. Mr. Hirschorn announced he was leaving at a 3 P.M. meeting, and there was much talk about who else on the staff might be leaving, too. Spin has attracted its share of controversy during Mr. Hirschorn’s editorship: In September, the magazine ran a fashion spread with a model who appeared to have committed auto-erotic asphyxiation, which the business side said scared off some potential advertisers, according to an editor. Then, Mr. Hirschorn decided to apologize for an excessively obnoxious Courtney Love coverline in the October issue; it backfired. Not long after, the band Korn got physical with one of Spin ‘s creative consultants over a photo that ran on the November cover, which they found unflattering. And finally, in late November, Marilyn Manson’s bodyguards choked longtime executive editor Craig Marks when the performer wasn’t satisfied that Spin was doing his bidding. “We didn’t suck up,” said one editor. The final straw came with the February cover on teen exploitation films. The cover image was inspired by those controversial rec-room kiddie-porn ads for Calvin Klein a couple of years ago, but the publisher feared that the words “teen” combined with the picture would scare advertisers, according to one Spin editor. The business side forced it to be redone at the last minute to promote the movie The Faculty .

Sources say Mr. Hirschorn was always slightly “fatalistic” about the magazine since, as one insider put it, “they paid way too much money for it. It dictated a performance level which was literally undoable.” Or, as one editor said of Mr. Hirschorn, “They built a little box for him and then they killed him in it.”

In one final blow to the magazine, Mr. Marks was fired at the end of the same day.

The accident-plagued new Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square is faced with yet another disaster, though of a decidedly esthetic type: The company’s titanium-lined cafeteria isn’t going to open with the rest of the building. This latest horror might leave the collective staffs of The New Yorker , House & Garden , Details , Vogue and Bride’s exploring the selections at Sbarro’s Italian eatery when the rest of the building opens for business this summer.

The sad news leaked out at the annual holiday luncheon that S.I. Newhouse Jr. gives for his editors and publishers. Speaking to his assembled minions at the Four Seasons in December, Mr. Newhouse said that the planned fourth-floor employee cafeteria, with its undulations of aerospace-grade titanium steel making up the walls, was behind schedule because of its complex design. (A model has been on display in the lobby of 350 Madison Avenue, populated by little paper dolls, for the last few months.) Never one to stray behind the curve, Mr. Newhouse had hired architect Frank Gehry, who designed the much-celebrated titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to make the cafeteria the showpiece of his great new tower of cubicles. “We always like to be ahead of the curve,” explained Condé Nast spokesman Maurie Perl. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build the thing. “It wasn’t that it was redesigned,” said Ms. Perl. “It’s just that the elements”–acid-treated, blue-tinted, perforated titanium steel and special glass–”are unusual.” Indeed. “The building crews were challenged by it,” she added. It’s not going to open with the building, Ms. Perl said, and she couldn’t give an estimate of when it ever would.

Meanwhile, the magazines are supposed to start moving into their appointed spaces in April, one at a time. The first will be House & Garden and the last will be The New Yorker , at the end of June, when the summer fiction double issue hits the stands.