Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Who will act?

Today's Herald-Standard story, "Political fax sent from school questioned,"  (April 30) details Fayette County Republican Committee Chairman Russ Rhodes' ire over a political fundraiser invitation allegedly sent from a fax machine at Hutchinson Elementary School in the Laurel Highlands School District.

The April 23 fax, according to Rhodes, was distributed on behalf of Douglas Sepic, one of five candidates for county judge in the upcoming primary election.
"What we have is a political person using taxpayer-funded resources for their own purposes," said Rhodes.
Sepic, who is an assistant district attorney in Fayette County, disavowed any personal involvement in the matter. "It is improper to send a (political campaign) fax from a government or school district fax and I did not authorize it," said Sepic.
We'll take both men at their word.
But that doesn't change the fact that Rhodes is 100 percent correct in pointing out that a fax machine being paid for with taxpayer dollars should not be used for political campaign purposes.
The practice could end up landing someone in jail. It has in neighboring Allegheny County, where district attorney Stephen Zappala prosecuted former state Senator Jane Orie for such office practices and won a conviction.
Rhodes says his next step is considering filing a complaint with the State Ethics Commission.
We wonder what would happen if Rhodes also dropped a dime to call Fayette County district attorney Jack Heneks and the Pennsylvania state police. They, after all, sprang into action (and are presumably still investigating) the nearly year-long "Saga of the Packet" presumably left at a restaurant by Fayette County Housing Authority board member Bev Beal during a lunch with Sonya Over and county commissioner Angela Zimmerlink.
Heneks and the PSP also rushed headfirst into the effort to track down the identities of anonymous posters on an Internet community bulletin board, once they started repeating potentially libelous rumors about a sitting county judge.
This case seems far more solid than either of those two. It's not like anyone can walk in off the street at any time and use the fax machine at Hutchinson Elementary School to send out an invitation to a political "meet and greet" for a judicial candidate. (Or can they?)
And what of the Laurel Highlands School District? Someone should call superintendent Jesse Wallace and the nine school board members, asking them what policy the school district has regarding the sending of such faxes, and how they plan to get to the bottom of who sent this one. (Are there security cameras that might have captured the culprit?)
Heck, the school district should be conducting its own investigation. Someone on staff just might have seen or heard something. How many of these faxes were sent? Who sent this one? Has anything like this ever happened before?
For all we know, it is standard operating procedure for someone -- maybe even anyone -- with ties to the Laurel Highlands School District to use public property (and thus taxpayer funds) to conduct political campaigning.
We hope someone does the right thing and at least calls for an investigation, maybe even by attorney general Kathleen Kane. Who knows what an investigator with no ties to local politics might uncover?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Selective presentation

According to Fayette County Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink's most recent blog posting, the following paragraph was deleted from her commentary by the Herald-Standard prior to its publication Sunday.

To say the article is inaccurate and misleading is an understatement. My experience shows information is not always accurately relayed and then reported resulting in misinformation to the public about a county issue. Knowing this, I initiated contact with the Herald Standard to provide accurate information before the article was printed, but it did no good; hence the reason for this letter.

The question for the newspaper's high command is: Why? What is so offensive about this paragraph, other than the fact that it is critical of the job done by the paper?

The newspaper ended up running a correction on the very same issue to which Zimmerlink was refering, so there obviously was a problem with the story. And Zimmerlink certainly has a strong basis for forming the opinion put forth in the deleted paragraph.

You can -- and should -- read the full text of Zimmerlink's blog post here: http://blog.votezimmerlink.com/

It's not like Zimmerlink wants favorable treatment, or is asking for a favor, or wants the paper to stop letting people criticize her. All she wants is for what is printed to be accurate -- especially as concerns what she says and provides to a reporter. That's a pretty reasonable request -- and one to which all sources are entitled.

When inaccurate information is printed, particularly in a front-page story, the damage isn't erased by an apology and a page 2 correction. That's why errors are anathema to good journalists.

Whatever happened to getting the story right?

We're glad that Zimmerlink has pointed out what she calls the "censorship" of her letter. It lets the public know that free speech seems to end when it reaches criticism of the job being done by the paper.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Oops! They did it again!

It wasn't on the front page, but the Friday, April 19 edition of the Herald-Standard contained the following important and noteworthy correction:

Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink did receive a packet of information related to the Fayette County Airport Authority and turned over copies of the documents to members of the authority as asked for in a right-to-know request. Incorrect information was reported in a story published Wednesday. The Herald-Standard apologizes for the error.

Given the newspaper's patttern of shabby treatment of Zimmerlink, you would think these type of errors wouldn't be happening. Remember the reporter who was permitted to do a hatchet job on her in print on the eve of the 2011 commissioner election, then was caught working the polls for the other Republican in the race? Remember the pre-election meeting story on the politically motivated (and unsubstantiated) allegation that Zimmerlink was posting items to a website on county time (authored by a reporter later hired as the county's chief clerk)?

We do:

In a less obvious and more easily defensible display, the paper spared no shortage of ink on the red herring we call "Packetgate," which tried to tie Zimmerlink to a packet of information regarding the Fayette County Housing Authority left at a local restaurant on May 30, 2012. Much ado was made about the matter being investigated by the district attorney, the state pollice and a private investigator hired by the housing authority with tax dollars. Eleven months later, as we predicted, nothing of substance has been presented.

So how in the world does the paper STILL end up having to print a major correction admitting that "incorrect information was reported" in a major story dealing with Zimmerlink? Aren't reporters and newspapers supposed to get it right the first time?

Even if the reporter goofs up, what of the editors whose job it is to catch such things before they are published and cause embarrassment?

A final word on right-to-know requests: Instead of being fixated on airport authority chairman Fred Davis' RTK request seeking information that Zimmerlink obtained from the airport authority -- and in the case of the Herald-Standard, getting a key fact wrong -- the media should be launching its own RTK requests to find out more about the Federal Aviation Administration findings that form the basis of Zimmerlink's concerns over airport operations.

In her column of April 21, "Concerns about airport are valid," Zimmerlink notes that according to the FAA, federal funds may be in jeopardy "because of the airport's continued unauthorized uses of airport property, the failure to collect fair market rent and other deficiencies" first brought to the authority's attention in 2011.

We need to hear more -- from airport board members and employees, past and present, and the FAA -- about these unauthorized uses of airport property and the failure to collect fair market rent.

We need to hear less about Zimmerlink trying to get the accurate answers that the independent media should be providing.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

No easy landing

After reading today's story, "Zimmerlink vows to monitor airport authority," (Herald-Standard, April 18), our eyes perked up at this line:

Zimmerlink said that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) deficiencies included unsigned lease agreements, safety issues, fair market value rental fees and other matters.

These problems, as reported, were flagged by the FAA during an inspection back in May 2011 and reiterated in a letter sent to the Fayette County Airport Authority in February of this year.

Apparently, the unresolved issues are serious enough to jeopardize state and federal funding for the airport. That alone should be reason enough for Commissioner Angela Zimmerlink -- or any other elected official, but especially the county commissioners who appoint airport authority board members -- to put this matter front and center on the radar screen.

The obvious question here is: If the airport is being run by a "competent" board, as described by chairman Fred Davis, why haven't these problems been resolved in the past 23 months? Instead of being miffed at Zimmerlink for requesting information from the FAA -- a nifty move, actually, because the federal Freedom of Information Act pretty much guarantees a speedy and thorough response -- the airport board should be supplying some answers.

They should be using their public meeting to tell us how many unsigned leases there were, who they were made out to and why they weren't signed in the first place.

They should be using their public meeting to tell us what the problems were with fair market rental fees, and if they were too low, why was that the case and who were the beneficiaries of these low rents.

And they should be using their public meeting to tell us about these safety issues, what they are, what progress has been made to correct them, and what still needs to be done.

Unsigned leases and problems with fair market value rental fees, as flagged by the FAA, sounds to us like a combination worthy of further investigation. On the surface, it certainly appears at least as interesting as the unsolved copper thefts and alleged voter fraud targeted by the investigating grand jury convened by Fayette County District Attorney Jack Heneks Jr.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Who's behind the ownership curtain?

Here in the patch, we've seen a thousand Herald-Standard.com business stories over the years, promoting the opening or expansion of everything from grocery stores to flower shops to manufacturing faciliites to auto dealers.

Each and every one of them included one key fact: The actual owner(s) of the business, whose smiling face could usually be found in a prominent photograph accompanying the feel-good story.

Thus we were perplexed -- and somewhat curious -- that the Sunday, March 17 story, "SWC Properties opens real estate office in Uniontown" made no mention of who actually owns this fledgling new real estate company.


Our curiosity was further piqued when a photo of a "broker" with the company showed him standing in front of the newspaper-owned building that formerly housed the now-failed HSTV operation. Before that, the site was home to Eddie's Fruit Basket.

Something about this presentation just wasn't adding up. So we visited the Pennsylvania Department of State website, where you can research such things, typed in SWC Properties, and easily found this listing:

SWC Properties LLC Current Name
Limited Liability Company - Domestic - Information
Entity Number: 4157830 Status: Active Entity Creation Date: 1/10/2013 State of Business.: PA Registered Office Address: 8 East Church Street
Uniontown PA 15401
Fayette Mailing Address: No Address

Then we used the same search engine and typed in Uniontown Newspapers Inc., and found this listing:
UNIONTOWN NEWSPAPERS INC Current NameBusiness Corporation - Domestic - Information
Entity Number: 368249 Status: Active Entity Creation Date: Registered Office Address: [Address Not Available]
PA 0 -0
Mailing Address: No Address

Name: VALERIE J LAUB Title: President Address: 8 E CHURCH ST
UNIONTOWN PA 15401-3563
Name: SANDRA C HARDY Title: Secretary Address: 8 E CHURCH ST
UNIONTOWN PA 15401-3563
Name: MICHAEL WHITE Title: Treasurer Address: 8 E CHURCH ST
UNIONTOWN PA 15401-3563
Name: STANLEY ELLIS Title: Vice President Address: 8 E CHURCH ST
UNIONTOWN PA 15401-3563

So, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State, the registered office address of SWC Properties turns out to be same address -- 8 E. Church St., Uniontown -- used by the owners/corporate officers of the company that runs Herald-Standard.com.

If you don't believe us, visit the website and look it up yourself. https://www.corporations.state.pa.us/corp/soskb/csearch.asp

Call us crazy, but this common address seems to be a pretty strong indication that the newspaper has branched out into the real estate business. We have no problem with that -- but, ethically and for the sake of journalistic accuracy and credibility, shouldn't that have been mentioned as part of the story?

Surely, Herald-Standard.com knows who the owner(s) of SWC Properties is/are, or there wouldn't have been a confirmable basis for a grand-opening story in the first place.

Was a conscious decision made somewhere along the line -- perhaps from the top-down -- to leave that information out of the story? If so, why? What's the big secret?