Kevin Diaz speaks

Kevin Diaz is the politics editor of the Star Tribune. He edited the page-one June 23 Star Tribune story by Patrick Coolican and Stephen Montemayor. The story sought to unravel Ilhan Omar’s marital arrangements in light of the Minnesota campaign finance board finding that Omar had filed joint tax returns with Ahmed Hirsi (to whom she was not legally married) while she was legally married to Ahmed Elmi. On July 18 PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson interviewed Diaz, before we published the most recent installment of David Steinberg’s investigative series on Omar. Diaz took the position as politics editor of the Star Tribune in March 2019; he is not responsible for, or invested in, the Star Tribune’s previous (non)coverage of Omar.

PolitiFact first summarizes the Star Tribune story and then posts a lightly edited transcript of the interview with Diaz. This is the interview as posted here (parenthetical additions are by PolitiFact while the bracketed note is mine):

Why was this something you felt was important to investigate?

My interest as an editor began with the silence she has maintained about her improper tax filings. That got my attention. She would say only that she had corrected the 2014 and 2015 tax filings and would not divulge anything about why she had filed taxes with a man she was not married to when she was separated but still married to someone else. It was a natural question: Who is Elmi and how does he fit into her life? We were not getting a lot of answers.

We also knew that since 2016, when she was running for the legislature, conservative opinion journalists and activists had been hounding her about these allegations, which had actually first surfaced in a local Somali news forum. We wanted to know, what is the case to be made for this narrative that won’t go away? She’s our congresswoman. It was a very provocative allegation. We felt as journalists, if there was smoke, it’s our job to look behind it to see if there’s fire. What’s behind it? What is the evidence?

So I assigned a couple of reporters to go back over the case. It turned out that most of the evidence behind (the notion that she had married her brother) was in social media. So we looked at the social media trail. It had been wiped clean, and that piqued our interest even more. But because the posts had been wiped, we had to rely on screen grabs that had been posted by people who we know have an ax to grind. So it was tricky.

Were these social media posts the main evidence for the allegation that she had married her brother?

As far as I can tell, it’s really only the social media posts. It seemed clear that there is some kind of personal relationship between Omar and Elmi. But whether they are family or not, we can’t tell. We weren’t able to come close to determining whether that was the truth. And frankly, we were wary of drawing any conclusions.

They both went to North Dakota State University, and they had overlapping addresses. Our public records searches determined that in at least one period after she married Elmi, all three (Omar, Elmi and Hirsi) used the same address in Minnesota. It raises questions about the nature of the relationship if she is living with both the person she’s married to and her eventual husband.

What’s really made it hard is that she’s been unwilling to address any of these questions. That has fueled the controversy. We quoted her at length to say that these were mere accusations, that they were unfair, and that she shouldn’t have to address them. Be that as may, there was an undisputed instance of her filing her taxes improperly. And if you’re in Congress, you should explain that to your constituents.

It’s true that for many immigrants like Omar, there are not a lot of available public records from their home country. That works both for and against her. It can leave family relationships murky. But in fairness to her, these allegations can be hard for her to disprove.

How much time did your staff spend researching the story?

From start to finish, a couple of weeks. They were covering multiple daily stories during that time, too. I have a team of six political reporters and I put two of them on the story. Our paper had been accused of neglecting the story earlier, and I felt like we owed it to our readers.

It wasn’t easy — there just isn’t a lot of evidence to mine in this area. There are some public records searches we could do and a social media trail, but not a lot of hard documentary evidence unless she’s willing to share them.

How much cooperation did you get from Omar?

It came up when she was running for Congress last year. One of our reporters confronted her about it last October [see note below]. She did not show us the immigration records we asked for, only a photo of them on a cellphone.

We’ve asked her these questions, and also asked her to make her father available. We’ve tried to reach Elmi. We’ve tried to reach her sisters. Her family could put this (the question of Elmi’s relationship to Omar) to rest easily. No one will talk to us. I wish we could send a reporter to Mogadishu (Somalia) but we don’t have the bandwidth.

What kind of reaction have you had since the most recent story came out?

We have been slammed by both sides. On the left, people are saying, “Why are you dignifying these unproven allegations?” To which I reply, “Look at the tax filings — it would be journalistic negligence if we didn’t try to find out what’s behind it.”

On the right, the complaint has been that we did too little, too late: “This has been the story for years — where have you been?”

Since the article came out, no one has come forward with smoking-gun, decisive proof that would make it look like we missed something. You see circumstantial evidence that begs for some kind of explanation from a member of Congress, but there’s no smoking gun that she married her brother.

NOTE by Scott Johnson: Diaz’s reference to “one of our reporters” is to Stephen Montemayor, in this October 2018 story. I wrote about the story yesterday in “Daily Mail versus Daily Beast.”

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