Friday, November 4, 2011

Loose Ends

Where’s the Woodword and Bernstein of today? Where’s the journalist whose credo is never trust a politician of any stripe? Where’s the reporter willing to do a little bit of work to expose wrongdoing in government?

Insider X contacted me again. S/he posed these and other questions.
Insider X got me thinking, and so I engaged several LCA reporters I know. All of them commended me for my recent blog posts, but none was willing to take up Insider X’s challenge.
Why is that? Well, there are a number of factors. Chief among them is the effectiveness of the Cuomo administration’s hard-line media approach. But this is a topic for another day.
The point I want to make now (in agreement with Insider X) is that there are a lot of stories waiting to be written if LCA members would just be willing to dig a little.
Take Dickergate. Yeah, I know it’s not the biggest deal in the world. In fact, it’s almost trivial, but it really does say something about the state of ethics enforcement and journalism today.
Start with Fred. A high-level administration source -- and I’ve been told by numerous insiders that they believe it was the Governor himself -- told Fred that an explosive new audit would show that Port Authority head Chris Ward was guilty of “extravagant spending” and other malfeasance. Fred accepted this version of events. He wrote his column based on what he was told.
A few days later, I posted a blog item with an insider account that questioned the propriety of the administration’s leak of the audit information. (The post compared Troopergate’s alleged leak of public travel records with the leak of the purported Ward audit.)
Fred got a little angry at me for doing this, and I wrote about that fact. It was then that reporters in Albany picked up on the story. But they weren’t delving into its substance.In fact, nobody got Mr. Ward’s side of the story.  As a result, it looked like nothing would come of the matter.
But then Ward gave an interview to an obscure New York City publication, and he said in no uncertain terms that there was no audit and that claims made against him were false.

I followed with a separate insider’s account that made the same points – that there was no audit and Mr. Ward was, in fact, smeared.

I got plenty of calls from insiders and the media, all asking the same question: Do you have evidence about the leaker or the audit?  I repeatedly told folks that I did not have any evidence. I stressed that I, myself, was not making the allegation. I was practicing my own brand of reporting. It’s what I call “blackboard journalism.”  My blog provides the blackboard for insiders to scrawl whatever they want (within reason.)
Subsequently, I was told by reporters that my blog had stirred things up. The reporters said that the governor’s people were explaining that the Ward audit wasn’t completed. It was underway, having been launched by board members who were deeply concerned about Mr. Ward’s fiscal stewardship of the authority.  They even pointed to a press release dated September 30 announcing the management review.
At about this time, yet another insider stepped forward and told me to read the minutes of the last Port Authority board meeting on October 20. I did it last night. It took ten minutes to find it and read through it.
Now, based on this tip, I was expecting to see something about the Ward probe. I thought there’d be some discussion at this board meeting about the apparent crisis at the authority. I thought I see some reference to fiscal irregularities mentioned in the Dicker article.
Take a guess what I found in the minutes? Remember, this board meeting is occurring just three days after the Dicker article appeared. This is a time when a subcommittee of board members is supposed to be very upset about Mr. Ward’s malfeasance and actively engaged in a probe.
Instead of discussing the supposed crisis, the board passed a resolution with the highest praise of Mr. Ward’s stewardship of the Port Authority.  Here’s part of what that resolution said:
 “… Chris Ward has managed the agency’s finances by maintaining zero growth operating budgets for three consecutive years and reducing the agency’s staff headcount to its lowest levels in over 40 years in order to allow for continued capital spending to advance the agency’s priority projects and maintain the agency’s facilities in a state of good repair during a period of significant economic downturn and uncertainty.” 

Soooooo, how does this square with the audit results Fred reported and the account from the administration that board members had launched a management review?
Well, it just doesn’t jive, and its further evidence of the shenanigans that occurred here.
I’m certainly no Woodward or Bernstein, but I  think that a reporter might want to ask the Port Authority board members responsible for the management review which story is true.  When it comes to the Authority’s money is Chris Ward a rogue? Or is he an outstanding administrator?
At the end of the day, I’d just like to know what really happened here.  I hate loose ends especially those at the end of an ethical noose.

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