Too Good To Check

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Jack Kelley was the closest that USA Today had to a living legend. The very picture of a fearless correspondent, he had, among other things, watched as three men were decapitated during a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. He witnessed Cuban refugees' attempted escape and told the tale of their drowning.

Trouble is, there's strong evidence that he made up both those stories — and a whole lot more. Many of Kelley's colleagues at USA Today had long thought that his pieces were simply too good to be true. But it was only last year, after the Jayson Blair scandal rocked the New York Times, that Kelley's bosses took such concerns seriously. A preliminary probe this winter elicited only more deception from Kelley, who, it emerged, had asked acquaintances to pose as sources to corroborate his fictions. Kelley quit after that came to light, saying he was being persecuted. The newspaper then began a more thorough investigation. A panel that included outside editors such as John Seigenthaler told staff gathered in the First Amendment dining room at USA Today headquarters near Washington last week that it had found evidence of fabrication in at least eight of Kelley's best-known stories and nearly two dozen instances of blatant plagiarism. A Cuban refugee who Kelley said had drowned, for example, was living in the U.S.

Kelley, 43, who denies wrongdoing, had tried to work his charm on the investigators. "He's so believable and seemingly so open," Seigenthaler told TIME. USA Today staff members say the paper's managers, insecure after years of having their publication ridiculed by some as McPaper, dismissed rumblings about a star who enhanced their publication's prestige. Kelley had been up for a Pulitzer Prize — the second of only two nominations his paper has received in its 22-year history. (The Wall Street Journal has won 19 in the same period.) "They thought he was just the kind of thing they were looking for," a USA Today reporter told TIME. The panel will soon issue private recommendations on how to prevent a repeat of such deception.