The University of Pittsburgh's student newspaper has fired a columnist after discovering he was a member of a politically connected secret society that may count the student body president among its members.
Amy Friedenberger, editor-in-chief of The Pitt News, said she fired assistant opinions editor Nick Stamatakis Monday morning after finding numerous conflicts of interest amid his membership in the "Druids," a campus secret society the paper says has become politically active in Pitt's student government.
Mr. Stamatakis had written the paper's endorsement of senior Gordon Louderback for student body president in November. Mr. Louderback is also believed to be a Druid, according to the paper.
"Unfortunately, neither I nor past editors could have anticipated one of our own employees being a member of a secret society," Ms. Friedenberger wrote in a letter to readers published today in the Pitt News. "It was an unprecedented situation that involved considerable discussion and difficult decision-making regarding a group we knew little about and a devoted newspaper employee."
Mr. Stamatakis said he never let his affiliation affect the discussion at the paper and regrets the appearance of impropriety. He also said he loved working at the newspaper.
"I stayed very impartial," he said. "I feel I tried to walk as ethical a line as I could."
Mr. Louderback declined to comment.
Last week, the student paper published a two-part story on the group ("History, Leadership, Transformation Characterize Druids"), one naming several campus leaders as Druids, raising the specter of a secret cabal of hooded figures pulling the levers of government. The paper said that six of the nine members of the university's Student Government Board, which distributes more than $2 million in student fees to campus groups every year, are Druids.
It was a change from the paper's normal coverage of the secret society -- a political story instead of the usual colorful piece on a student group with a penchant for robes that the paper has published over the years.
"I didn't want this to be the once-in-a-decade feature on the Druids," said reporter Tom Visco, a senior.
"This is about the transition over the past four years, how much they've changed -- it brought all of that to normal students who don't live in the student union."
Founded in the 1920s as a sophomore honorary society for men, the Druids fill most secret society stereotypes: Robes, hoods, cryptic letters sent to "tapped" members.
The group seemed largely inactive in recent years, stepping out briefly in 2002 in full cloak-and-sneakers regalia after a former Druid spoke at a university event, according to the Pitt News. In 2004, they anonymously awarded $175 book store gift cards to two students.
But as of late, the group has appeared to take a step into politics. In his story, Mr. Visco wrote that the Druids had worked to elect at least one previous student body president and have been active in politics this year.
Pitt administrators said they've seen no evidence of wrongdoing.
"We have no reports that they have broken any university policies, nor have we seen evidence that the Druids -- or any members of the SGB -- have not been transparent in the performance of their duties as SGB members," university spokesman John Fedele wrote in a statement. "Members of SGB understand and are committed to their responsibility to represent the needs and interests of the entire non-CGS (College of General Studies) undergraduate student body at Pitt."
Members of the student government are paid, and the president receives a tuition remission and a parking permit.
Despite Mr. Stamatakis' firing, Ms. Friedenberger applauded the story as a blow struck for openness in government -- even if it's student government.
"We're in the business of transparency here," she said. "It's always something you should be skeptical of a group of people who are doing things in secret and don't want to identify themselves."
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497.