The San Francisco Inquirer looks like local news. Here’s why politicians are furious with the site

WASHINGTON — A New York consultant who reportedly published false news articles about political figures has created a website called the San Francisco Inquirer, which is designed as a local news site but appears to be an effort to pressure federal lawmakers into supporting the consultant’s client, a Bay Area-based tribe.

The website has so riled California lawmakers that it was recently the subject of a tense meeting in Washington, D.C., between the tribe’s chair and five members of Congress, according to audio of the meeting obtained by The Chronicle.

In late
2022, the Inquirer began publishing articles castigating Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and others, saying they were impeding the Castro Valley-based Muwekma Ohlone tribe’s effort to obtain official recognition.

Many of the lawmakers who have been the subject of Inquirer stories say their positions have been misrepresented and that they were never contacted by the outlet, which relies often on unnamed sources and does not identify who wrote its articles.

An article posted
Jan. 1
reported that Lofgren’s “opposition to Muwekma sovereignty” has “many activists inside the (Democratic) party wondering whether she should retire.” The story cites no sources for the claim.

Also in the post, the Inquirer wrote that “Democratic Party committee members from across the region have been calling on Lofgren to explain herself.” She said her office had not seen or received such communications.

Articles about the tribe are prominent on the Inquirer’s website and are mixed in with articles about other issues, some of which consist of near-verbatim press releases from public officials like San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

The home page of the site contains logos for major companies like Kaiser Permanente and Wells Fargo. A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente told The Chronicle “we are not an advertiser or supporter of this site and we will be following up on any unauthorized use of our logo.” Wells Fargo said it did not have a relationship with the site and would ask for its logo to be removed.

The site was launched by Matthew Ricchiazzi, a business consultant who, according to published reports, has in the past made unsubstantiated or false claims on a different website, called The Buffalo Chronicle, designed to look like a local news outlet. In an interview, he defended the San Francisco Inquirer, saying the articles are accurate, and confirmed he operated it.

Ricchiazzi has publicized the San Francisco Inquirer by sending press releases to journalists and purchasing Facebook ads. Ricchiazzi is a paid consultant to Muwekma Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh, though both said the San Francisco Inquirer is not connected to that work.

The San Francisco Inquirer looks like local news. Here’s why politicians are furious with the site

Charlene Nijmeh is chair of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. In a tense meeting in Washington D.C. this month, five members of Congress asked Nijmeh to urge a paid consultant to stop publishing attack stories on the San Francisco Inquirer website.

Lea Suzuki, Photographer / The Chronicle

In a statement to The Chronicle, Lofgren said, “It is not helpful when groups or advocates leak, warp, misrepresent and/or get ahead of private conversations when they are trying to advance meaningful policies. Similarly, attacking me or my colleagues is counterproductive, especially at the very beginning of the legislative process.”

Ricchiazzi said in an interview that he stood behind the Inquirer posts.

“The San Francisco Inquirer is entirely factual,” Ricchiazzi said. “I stand entirely by the articles we’ve written about Zoe Lofgren in terms of being 100% factually accurate.”

The Inquirer’s motto is a “bold tradition of truth telling.” The site is less than a year old, first appearing in March 2022.

The Chronicle began looking into the Inquirer after receiving press releases from Ricchiazzi that included links to the site’s articles. After a reporter began asking questions about the site, the Inquirer published
attacking both The Chronicle and Lofgren.

One of those
articles, published by Ricchiazzi, quotes Ricchiazzi, describing him as “a Haudneosaunee activist and consultant who volunteers in support of indigenous liberation movements in the United States and Canada.”

Several lawmakers confronted Nijmeh about the website during a Jan. 10 meeting and urged her to direct Ricchiazzi to stop posting what they said were false attacks on Lofgren. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, warned in the meeting that the San Francisco Inquirer was undermining the tribe’s goals by doing that.

The Muwekma tribe is in the midst of an appeal for federal recognition, which would give its members new legitimacy and access to federal funds and allow the tribe to purchase land.

The website does not disclose Ricchiazzi’s ownership, or any of Ricchiazzi’s clients, including Nijmeh. The transparency disclosure on the Inquirer’s Facebook page, however, includes a phone number that Ricchiazzi uses in his email signature. Ricchiazzi said he doesn’t need to disclose that he is paid by the tribe because other news organizations don’t disclose every interest of their owners.

He told The Chronicle that his goal isn’t to be “the arbiter of truth. I want people to be able to absorb facts. I don’t want to be a gatekeeper of facts.” The website includes no bylines with photos or posts “because it often touches controversial subjects,” Ricchiazzi said.

Nijmeh told The Chronicle a day after her meeting with lawmakers that she didn’t see any problem with the Inquirer website.

“I would always correct something that was inaccurate. But what he’s saying is not inaccurate. It is the truth about what’s happening to our tribe,” she said. “I can’t tell him if he wants to talk about this, to say, ‘No, don’t talk about this.’”

BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star
in 2019 that Ricchiazzi offered to publish positive or negative coverage of political candidates in 2010 for a fee on another site he created. Ricchiazzi told the publications that this practice did not continue after that.

The Buffalo Chronicle once reported, in a widely debunked article, that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was looking to pay hush money to suppress a story about sexual misconduct, according to BuzzFeed and the Star.

In a Q&A on the Buffalo Chronicle site, Ricchiazzi is quoted as saying, “In the week prior to Canada’s federal parliamentary elections, we took some liberties, and indeed we did dabble in misinformation, but only with regard to one specific article, on behalf of an indigenous group in Canada. We don’t generally publish misinformation and did so only to advance the political liberation of Canada’s aboriginal communities — who, today, live in an apartheid state under the Indian Act.”

The Daily Beast
that Ricchiazzi was behind a story pushing the unproven theory that the Philadelphia mob delivered thousands of votes for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. (Ricchiazzi did not respond to a request for comment, the Daily Beast said.) Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley
lawmakers in June 2022 that the article prompted violent threats against her.

Ricchiazzi said the money for running the San Francisco Inquirer comes from his “consulting practice and from other resources.” He said it makes a “very little amount of money” and that he sells some ads.

The website includes ads generated through WordAds, a WordPress program. But it also includes the prominent logos of businesses that appear to suggest those entities are advertisers or sponsors. Many of the businesses told The Chronicle they had never heard of the San Francisco Inquirer.

“It’s not a native ad, it’s just our law firm’s logo they must’ve pulled from somewhere (without our permission),” said Josh Gordon, an attorney at the Gordon Law Group whose logo appears on the site.

Ricchiazzi said his policy is to “give the ad space away for free….That’s not my revenue model. So, I’m just not interested in selling ads. Every time I go out and I find a restaurant I like or a bar that’s cool and I want to be supportive of the locally owned business, I’ll throw an image of their logo up. Just to be supportive and to populate the website.”

Ricchiazzi said he has volunteer writers and that he does not require them to approach the subject of an article for an interview or response, a common journalistic practice.

“I really come at this from an innovative kind of asymmetric or agile type perspective where, you know, it’s, you know, we’re not an establishment media type of organization,” he said. “And, you know, that’s kind of what’s cool about it.”

Several assertions on the website are attributed to anonymous sources. A Nov. 23
stating that Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara, and Eric Swalwell, D-Castro Valley, support legislation to recognize the tribe relies on a “source familiar with” Swalwell’s thinking and “a political operative with close ties to Swalwell.” Representatives for Swalwell and Khanna told The Chronicle that neither lawmaker has taken a position on such legislation, which has not yet been introduced.

California state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said he was never contacted for an article that suggests an indigenous activist was trying to “improperly influence” his office.

“This article underscores the danger of interest groups with a particular political bent publishing false claims under the banner of news,” Dodd told The Chronicle.

The website directs most of its criticism at Lofgren.

The tribe and the Inquirer, in press releases and reports,
said Lofgren reversed her position on federal recognition for the tribe, citing a 2002 speech in which she called on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to process the tribe’s application for acknowledgment. Lofgren said in a statement that she has not yet taken a position on legislation to recognize the tribe, and that she supported its efforts to gain recognition through the Interior Department.

The conflicts came to a head at the meeting between Nijmeh, her husband Kenneth Nijmeh, Swalwell, Khanna, Lofgren, Eshoo, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Santa Cruz, and the lawmakers’ staff members. Though the tribe requested the meeting to advance its recognition efforts, the discussion quickly turned to the San Francisco Inquirer. Ricchiazzi was not present at the meeting, participants told The Chronicle.

The lawmakers expressed frustration over the Inquirer articles, particularly those directing criticism at Lofgren and those that they said misrepresented her positions. Nijmeh told lawmakers the posts about Lofgren were not attacks, but represented advocates seeking justice. She said Ricchiazzi had a right to free speech and that she couldn’t stop him from exercising it.

The Nijmehs said they were frustrated that the meeting focused so much on the Inquirer articles, and not the tribe’s priorities. They also pointed to what they saw as racist language used by Swalwell.

“The whole tone of the meeting was, again, let’s ignore your issues, 40 years of struggle. … Let’s ignore all that and talk about, in the words of Rep. Swalwell, ‘the arrows you’re shooting at Zoe Lofgren,’” Kenneth Nijmeh said. “Calling an indigenous woman, telling her she’s shooting arrows at a white woman, you know how offensive and racist that is?”

According to the audio recording, Swalwell said during the meeting: “I think what my colleague Ms. Eshoo is saying is that it seems like on a lot of these issues, there’s a lot of support in this room, but there’s got to be a reset on your side of the arrows that are being aimed at my colleagues.”

Swalwell said in a statement to The Chronicle, “I am committed to a good faith effort to resolve Muwekma’s decades long struggle for federal recognition. However, I am troubled to see false attacks on my colleagues and mischaracterizations of my position on the issue to the press.”

The lawmakers who attended the meeting and who represent the territory where the tribe is located said they would all need to agree to any legislation granting it recognition. At least two of them have serious concerns about what the tribe could gain: gaming rights.

Eshoo and Lofgren said they have long been opposed to gambling and would not support legislation that would grant gaming rights to the tribe.

Another Bay Area tribe, the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, regained its federal recognition in 1991 with an anti-gaming provision. Later, the tribe persuaded then-Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, to include a last-minute measure in a bill that lifted that provision, and allowed them to expand an existing cardroom into a casino.

Nijmeh said gaming rights must be included in any bill. She said she doesn’t personally approve of gaming, but that her tribe won’t relinquish a right granted to other tribes.

“They’re asking us to be less of a tribe in Indian Country, in California,” she said.

Recent legislation providing federal recognition for other tribes has often included anti-gaming provisions. Of the 20 tribes most recently recognized by Congress, nine of the agreements included such measures. A December 2022 measure took land into trust for the Northern California Karuk tribe and prohibited gaming on that land.

Charlene Nijmeh said she believed lawmakers’ anger over the San Francisco Inquirer site provided them an excuse to not address the tribe’s wishes.

“And even with all that, we still have hope,” Kenneth Nijmeh said. “We still have hope that we can convince them.”

Shira Stein is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @shiramstein

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