Joseph Nicolas was struggling to keep his small business afloat. The telemarketing job about which Nicolas was passionate had been outsourced to India and he was faced with two choices: "follow the job and run an India-based call center or start his own business here in the United States." He chose the latter. But as it was the end of the Bush administration and money was scarce, he was forced to hire a third-party company to help. Things were looking bleak. Failure loomed.
But then, in rode the federal government. As Nicolas puts it, "If it wasn’t for the Obama administration and his small business programs, I would not be in business today." He was able to get help from the Recovery Act as well as a Social Security Administration initiative targeting the hiring of the disabled. He soon added 15 jobs, and plans on adding 10 more with a year, and can even offer his employees health insurance, thanks to ObamaCare. Nicolas says, "There’s no way I could do that without [a government subsidy]." To top it all off he's even been able to open a new office in the prestigious Columbia Tower in Seattle where he rubs elbows with major corporations such as Amazon. All in all, Nicolas's is a remarkable Obama administration "Story of Recovery."
There's just one catch. Very little of the story can be verified, and some is demonstrably untrue. Just for starters, the blog post says that Nicolas "is now able to secure larger contracts after having opened an office in the Columbia Tower with [major corporations such as] Amazon and the Virginia Mason Hospital."* However, according to the Seattle Times, Amazon vacated their offices in Columbia Tower (now the Columbia Center) for newer quarters in 2011 - the blog post about Nicolas's company was published on March 27, 2012. Virginia Mason Hospital is located several blocks away from the Columbia Center. There is no evidence they have or ever had offices in the Columbia Center. I contacted the Communications and Public Relations Department of Virginia Mason Medical Center who confirmed this finding. Two of the most easily verifiable facts in the story are wrong.
What then of Nicolas's business? The story implies Nicolas started a telemarketing business to pursue his passion. However, several online resources identify Nicolas as a Licensed Massage Practitioner, among them AskYP and Hot Frog. Both of these sites list Nicolas's business address as 1301 1st Avenue in Seattle, which is in a building complex called Harbor Steps (AskYP lists Suite 815), not the Columbia Center. The phone number (206-354-5722) is the same phone number listed for Joseph Nicolas seven times on BarackObama.com (here and here) as the contact phone number for Nicolas as the host of Obama campaign events. And it is also the same number listed for Anatole Massage on multiple online directories. So where does "Anatole" fit in?
So what of the funds reportedly received via the Recovery Act and the SSA program? I contacted Recovery.gov and asked them about a loan or grant to a Joseph Nicolas. Their reply was as follows:
All information on recipients displayed on Recovery.gov comes directly from the reports the recipients submit. In most instances, the recipients are not required to name officers of the company. We have searched for “Joseph Nicolas” but there are no results which is probably an indication that information about the award the company received was submitted under the company’s name. However, if you’re willing to do some digging you might be able to find the information using the Recovery Explorer. Choose the State of Washington, and Seattle. You will then be able to see all the recipients of awards in the city of Seattle.I searched the aforementioned database in various ways, for "Nicolas", "Joseph Nicolas", "Ariel Anatole", "Anatole", and other combinations and could not turn up anything. I also searched for physical therapy businesses, massage businesses, and telemarketing businesses in the Seattle area and came up with no matches for anything like Nicolas's business.
Next, I contacted the Social Security Administration and asked them first about Joseph Nicolas and a possible grant. The reply I received was a terse, "The Administration does not have any information concerning this." I made the same request about "Anatole Massage" and received another terse but rather oddly worded reply, "Social Security Administration doesn't have to know about this ,yet [sic]." These replies were so non-specific and cryptic that I am hesitant to assume they are the definitive answer, but on the face they seem to mirror the results from Recovery.gov. Absolutely nothing.
My last attempt to find Nicolas's company was to search for a telemarketing firm located in the Columbia Center, which is located in Seattle at 701 5th Avenue. The search brought up two results: One is called Outsource to India and the other Call Centers India. Needless to say, it seems unlikely the Obama campaign could be interested in broadcasting either of these companies as Stories of Recovery after having spent months blasting Mitt Romney for outsourcing jobs overseas at Bain Capital.
Obviously, since none of the preceding information could be verified, other details such as the "third-party company", the fifteen new employees, and the plug for ObamaCare are also called into question. How is it possible that a growing and apparently prosperous business located in an iconic building in one of the largest cities in the Northwest could be so difficult to track down?
Next I turned to the author of the blog post. Austin Wright-Pettibone's profile at Linked-In lists him as the "Digital Lead - King County at Obama for America." A Google search of BarackObama.com reveals that Wright-Pettibone has been quite a prolific writer for the site. Although he often writes about LBGT-related issues, his posts cover broader topics as well, often appearing on the local Washington state blog of the campaign's website. But on a number of occasions, his work appears on the national blog as well. The Joseph Nicolas post is one such story.
Wright-Pettibone wrote the Joseph Nicolas story in March 2012 when he was a senior at Inglemore High School in Kenmore, Washington, where he wrote for the school newspaper, the Nordic News. He also writes for the Bothell Reporter, a Seattle-area publication, which in fact published an article by Wright-Pettibone only a few weeks after the Nicolas blog post was published at BarackObama.com.
My attempts to contact Wright-Pettibone about his story have gone unanswered. I attempted to reach him through Facebook, his Flickr account, and finally Twitter to no avail. I also emailed the Washington office of Obama for America on June 25th as follows:
I am trying to reach Austin Wright-Pettibone.
I read your blog post on BarackObama.com dated March 27th about Joseph Nicolas. I am interested in finding out more about his business and his story, but the post does not mention the name. Can you tell me what his company is called?
I received this reply on July 4th, though it was unsigned:
Thanks for your email! We have forwarded it to Joseph and asked him to get in touch with you.
However, I heard nothing and sent a follow-up email on July 10th, but still received no reply from Nicolas or Wright-Pettibone. More recently, on July 19th, I sent yet another follow-up:
It’s been nearly four weeks since I sent my first email, and I am still waiting to find out the name of Joseph Nicolas’s business that was the subject of the March 27th “Stories of Recovery” blog post. Does anyone at OFA know the answer?I have not received a reply to this email either. I made one final attempt at emailing on Tuesday, July 25th:
I am close to publishing an article concerning the blog post on BarackObama.com dated March 27th about Joseph Nicolas by Austin Wright-Pettibone. I have not been able to confirm any of the facts in the blog post, and have found at least two statements to be wrong. Additionally, I can only find one business associated with Joseph Nicolas, that being Anatole Massage. Is this the business that is the subject of the blog post? Neither Austin Wright-Pettibone or Joseph Nicolas have responded to my attempts to reach them about this story. I would appreciate any documentation that they or the Obama for America organization can provide to back up the claims in the blog post, or to provide clarifications or retractions.As of the time I published this post, I still had no response.
Why the silence? The campaign's initial response on July 4th demonstrates they know that the Nicolas blog post is provoking some interest. Wright-Pettibone must be under enormous pressure as a recent high school graduate with a fairly high profile position in an incumbent president's reelection campaign. And in Joseph Nicolas/Ariel Anatole's last entry on his LiveJournal account on May 28th, he expressed some anxiety about his increasing level of involvement in the Obama campaign. Why not head off a misunderstanding if there is some reasonable explanation for what appears to be a poorly researched story? Why not jump at the chance to clarify and draw more attention to a story that would help their candidate and possibly give Nicolas's business yet another boost?
If this Story of Recovery turns out to be untrue or substantially embellished, the results could be personally and professionally damaging for both Nicolas and Wright-Pettibone and a black-eye for the Obama campaign to boot. Certainly the interests of all would be best served with open communication, either confirming the story with documentation, or retracting it. My attempts to contact to Obama campaign will continue as I try to determine if the remarkable story of Joseph Nicolas is reality or simply an extreme case of fan fiction.
Click to go to Part 2.
*It has occurred to me that an entirely ungrammatical but alternate reading of this quote might be that the larger contracts were with Amazon and Virginia Mason Hospital and the phrase "after having opened an office in the Columbia Tower" is in the wrong place. But until the Obama campaign responds, I am assuming the statement is intended to be read as it appears.