Journalists are often criticized for rushing into print, onto the Web or on the air with every scrap of information, rumor and innuendo that they hear. There is some validity to that criticism, of course, but there is also irony, because every journalist I know learns far more than he or she will ever tell an audience. A critical role of the journalist is to weigh both the reliability of information and the appropriateness of sharing it with thousands of readers or viewers.
Almost always, if we intend to share information with an audience, we should attribute it to a particular, named source. Audiences should expect that; careful attribution helps them decide how much faith to put in the information. It also holds each source accountable for what he or she says, and helps keep sources from taking “cheap shots” at others. So in the discussion that follows, remember first that On the Record is the rule; any other arrangement is an exception to the rule. We should not break that rule without a very good reason.
On occasion, however, a journalist will agree not to identify his or her source of information. The usual criterion for that decision is that there is no other way audiences will learn necessary information without such a guarantee by the reporter to the source. This privilege is too frequently abused by reporters, particularly those covering Washington. For example, many early stories about then-President Clinton’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky relied heavily on unnamed sources speculating about what might have happened.
Even reporters whose use of unnamed sources is more defensible may risk jail or heavy fines, or both, to protect the identity of those sources. When syndicated columnist Robert Novak identified a CIA operative, a potential violation of federal law, several years ago, New York Times reporter Judith Miller began investigating who leaked that information to Novak, and why. Miller, who relied on confidential sources in her reporting, ultimately went to jail rather than reveal one of her sources, despite a court order to do so. Miller was jailed even though she had written no stories about the case. Another news organization, Time magazine and reporter Matt Cooper, decided ultimately to obey a similar court order. In Miller’s case, she and The Times made an ethical decision that journalistic independence, protecting her source, and preserving the value of confidential source relationships were worth going to jail for. Whether – and under what circumstances – journalists should be allowed to protect sources despite a court order is a classroom discussion worth having.
Box 15.1 Levels of Attribution
Here are the levels of attribution most journalists recognize. Remember that on the record is the rule; other forms of attribution are exceptions:
1. On the record: The source is named and his or her involvement in the event or issue is made clear. On the record information may include direct quotes, indirect quotes, partial quotes, dialogue and paraphrase. On the record is the rule for attributing information; all other forms of attribution are the exception.
2. Not for direct attribution: The reporter may use the information, and may even use quotes, but agrees not to identify the source. The reporter and source agree on how the source will be referred to.
3. Background: Information is presented in the story without attribution, often from an expert who does not want to be publicly associated with a particular story but who agrees to provide context for it.
4. Deep background:Information will not be used directly in a story. Often it is used to guide reporters or to confirm information obtained from other sources.
5. Off the record: To reporters, information given off the record is not usable in any way. To sources, it might mean anything from not-for-attribution to deep background. The reporter should make the difference clear to the source.
It is important in any discussion of attribution to recognize and define the levels at which reporters receive information. The following typology is not universally shared, but it encompasses most of the types of promises reporters make to sources (See Box 15.1):
On the record is the most frequent way reporters present information to audiences. The source is named and his or her involvement in the issue or expertise in it is discussed briefly. On the record information can be in the form of direct quotes, indirect quotes, partial quotes, dialogue or paraphrase.
Not for direct attribution means that the reporter may use the information, and may even use quotes, but agrees not to identify the source. There is a lot of room for negotiation over how the source will be referred to in the story to give the audience some idea of his or her credibility. The reporter wants to get as specific as possible; the source wants to remain unidentifiable. Often, the attribution will look something like this: “ . . . a source close to the mayor said.” Remember that your agreement is to not identify the source. If you do not name the source but decide to get cute and include so much identifying information that everyone will know who the source is, you have still broken your promise.
Background is information that is presented without attribution. Sometimes, that happens because the information is available from numerous sources. For example, in a news story there is no need to say “President George W. Bush was reelected in November 2004, according to The Encyclopedia Britannica.” But some information might be well-known by people in a particular field or profession but not by the public, and we need someone in that profession to guide us. Say we were checking a tip that patients were dying at a local hospital because there was no clear-cut chain of command or treatment protocols in the emergency room. We would probably interview emergency room physicians at other hospitals for general information about the organization of and job responsibilities in a typical emergency room. That information might be presented to an audience without attribution: In many emergency rooms, a designated triage officer evaluates incoming cases for severity and decides who must be treated first . . . .
Deep background is information that not only will not be attributed; it will not be used directly in a story. The most celebrated example of a deep background source is the Watergate scandal’s Deep Throat. Reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post began covering the burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in June 1972. Before long, it became apparent that the break-in was approved by high-ranking officials in the administration of then-President Richard Nixon. The reporting of Woodward, Bernstein and others eventually led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. But along the way, Woodward and Bernstein needed someone familiar enough with the investigation, the Nixon White House and the Committee to Re-Elect the President to point them in the right direction with their reporting. They used Deep Throat for that. Sometimes, Deep Throat would let them know whether a path they were pursuing would be productive. Sometimes they would run information they thought they knew past Deep Throat for his reaction. Deep Throat occasionally confirmed what other sources had told them. At other times his information gave them the perspective and direction they needed to question other sources. Never in their stories did they attribute information to Deep Throat, nor did they directly present information Deep Throat gave them.
Woodward and Bernstein promised not to reveal Deep Throat’s identity until his death, but in late spring 2005 his family revealed him as W. Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI during the Watergate investigation. While still alive when his identity was revealed, Felt was in his 90s and in fragile health.
Off the record, to many reporters, means that the information is not usable in any form. But sources will frequently say “off the record” to mean anything from not-for-attribution to deep background. It is important for the reporter to clear up that discrepancy. When a source tells a reporter that information the source is about to give the reporter must be “off the record,” the reporter will frequently respond: “That means I can never use it. In that case why do you want to tell me? You know I’m a reporter. Why would you give me information I can’t use?” Usually, at that point, a source will respond with something like, “Well, I do think it’s important that people find this out. I just can’t have it known that it came from me.” For the reporter, that’s not the same as “off the record.” Taking a hard line on the meaning of “off the record” is usually a good strategy for a reporter because it sets clear parameters and gives the reporter a chance to negotiate how to get information to an audience.
How does that fundamental and very important negotiation work? The reporter wants the information to be reliable and credible, so he or she tries to get it as closely associated with the source as possible. The source wants to distance himself or herself from the information as much as possible. It is critical that the reporter and source strike the agreement before the information is given, that both understand the level at which they are operating, and that the reporter keep that promise. As long as a reporter has identified herself appropriately to a source and said that she is working on a story, she and the source should assume that information will be on the record unless they strike a prior agreement to the contrary. Never let a source talk to you for 20 minutes and then say, “Of course, that was all off the record.”
Again, remember that sources should almost always be on the record. Anything else is an exception to the rule. So as a reporter, you must find out and report why a source does not want to be on the record. There are legitimate reasons — fear of losing a job or other retribution, fear of physical danger to oneself or one’s family — but never let a source deviate from being on the record just so he or she can take cheap shots at somebody else. You should always tell your audience why your source is not identified: “One witness said the assailant shot three times from only a few feet away. The witness asked not to be identified because the killer is still at large and the witness fears retribution.” (Notice here that we did not even identify the witness by sex.)
Always verify information that is not on the record.
You have no doubt seen the various ways television reporters handle bites from sources who are not on the record. Those techniques include silhouetting, “blue-dotting,” voice masking and so forth. Whichever technique you as a television journalist might use for a particular source or story, remember that the negotiation and the promise arising from it come first. And again, your promise is to not reveal the source’s identity. It is not enough simply not to name the source.
Because this entire chapter has been about decisions you make when you decide to break the rule of keeping sources on the record, it has been about ethical decision-making. To help clarify your ethical reasoning, think about the decisions you face in terms of both your audience and your source, and what you owe both.
Ordinarily, we owe our audiences trustworthy information about matters of importance. That means that they should know where information is coming from. Giving information to them that hasn’t been fully attributed means that we have judged the information to be so important that audiences must have it even if they cannot know its source. That is certainly an appropriate way to judge competing ethical demands. Remember, though, to stay open to other approaches to ethical decision-making. The obvious one in this case is determining whether the information you want is available from any other source on the record.
What we owe our sources, simply put, is to keep the promises we make to them. A promise of confidentiality should be seen as a kind of moral contract, and all parties to a contract should understand its provisions before they agree to it. Your source should understand what you are promising by “not for attribution,” “background,” “deep background” and “off the record.” He or she should also know the lengths to which you are willing to go to keep your promise.
Making such a “contract” may sound relatively straightforward, until you consider that, like Judith Miller, reporters sometimes break the law, violate a court order, and even go to jail rather than break the promises they make to sources. With so much at stake, your source should know whether you are prepared to go that far. It is also fair to ask your source whether he or she would be willing to be identified to keep you out of jail.
Reporters should get information on the record. Let that be your rule. Careful attribution helps audiences decide how much faith to put in a story. Any arrangement with a source other than on-the-record is an exception to the rule. But on the rare occasions when you are about to decide that a source cannot be identified (See Box 15.2):
1. Make sure first that there is no other way your audiences will be able to learn necessary information on the record.
2. Make sure your source understands on the record, not for attribution, background, deep background and off the record.
3. Make the agreement about how you will identify your source before the source gives you information. The source will want to remove himself or herself as far from direct attribution as possible. You will want to get the source as close to on the record as you can. Don’t let a source try to renegotiate after he or she tells you something.
4. Remember, and let your sources know, that off the record information is virtually useless to a reporter.
5. Always verify information that is not on the record.
6. Keep in mind the ways of keeping sources in broadcast stories unidentified, even when they are on tape.
7. Tell your audience why you have agreed not to identify a source.
8. Keep your promises.
Box 15.2 Strategies for Attributing Information
1. Keep sources on the record unless there is no other way your audiences can learn essential information.
2. Go over not for attribution, background, deep background and off the record with your source to make sure he or she understands the difference.
3. Negotiate with the source over how the source will be identified before the source gives you information. Don’t let a source try to renegotiate afterward.
4. Off-the-record information is usually of no value to a reporter. Make sure your source knows that.
5. Verify information that is not on the record.
6. Even when they are on tape, sources in broadcast stories can be kept confidential. Make sure they understand and agree with how you will do that.
7. When sources are not on the record, tell your audience why not.
8. Keep promises you make to sources.
In this exercise, you are working on a longer story, a “weekender” in newspaper parlance, trying to figure out what is at the heart of the conflict between Council Members Wise and Bullard and City Manager Prentice. Writing the story for print presents one set of challenges; writing it for broadcast presents those same challenges, plus others. Your instructor might ask you to augment your story with an outline or shooting script of how you would tell the story visually, including presenting interviews with people who do not want to be identified.
Read the Finance Committee’s report, the rebuttal from council members Wise and Bullard, and the transcript of the city manager’s news conference presented here. (Remember that the Finance Committee comprises one City Council member and two citizens. Remember also that the information in the report and in the city manager’s news conference is all on the record. City Council is expected to discuss the report and the rebuttal at its next meeting Tuesday.) Then go to the interviews with current and former city officials and staff members.
For your story, you will need to provide context from the Finance Committee’s report, from the dissent by Wise and Bullard, and from the city manager’s news conference. Assume it is now late March, and that the report came out three days ago, more than five months after the city council meeting at which Mayor Hostetter asked for it. Remember that the Finance Committee had promised it in about four weeks. Assume that Prentice’s news conference was two days ago, the day after the report was released. Whether it was actually assigned to you or not, assume that you did a daily story about the release of the report and one about Prentice’s news conference.
Before you write your story, you might want to refresh your memory by reviewing the chronology “A Year in the Life of Valleydale and Blue Ridge County.”
The Finance Committee’s report
CITY OF VALLEYDALE
MEMORANDUM TO: Honorable Mayor and City Council
FROM: Finance Committee — Louise Mutispaugh, Preston Allen, C.D. “Tarheel” Davies
RE: Special Report
This is a special report of the Finance Committee in response to the Mayor’s special request on Oct. 15. In it we report on and discuss concerns raised by Council Members Wise and Bullard relating to the activities of the City Finance Department and the City Manager. It should be pointed out at the outset that the Committee received cooperation from the City Manager in its investigation. It should also be pointed out that Council Members Wise and Bullard object strongly to the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations. Their dissenting report is appended hereto.
Approximately one year ago Council Members Wise and Bullard began alleging that there were certain irregularities in the methods by which the Finance Department accounted for the city budget, including but not limited to property tax revenues and expenditures for the City Manager’s office. The allegations began as a “whispering campaign” but soon were being made on the record in open City Council meetings. At one such session, the Finance Committee was asked to investigate the allegations. We were asked to report back to the City Council in three weeks. We apologize for not meeting that deadline. The substantial delay was due to our desire to give those with evidence against the City Manager every opportunity to come forward. With the exception of Council Members Wise and Bullard, no one has.
We repeatedly asked Council Members Wise and Bullard to provide evidence substantiating their allegations. To this date, they have failed to do so, other than to repeat their earlier allegations. The sole piece of evidence they have presented consists of a newspaper article in The Jeffersonville Herald based on a computer analysis of the current and proposed city budgets. We do not find the article either persuasive or sufficient as evidence of wrongdoing.
Therefore, we consider this matter to be closed. We suggest to Council Members Wise and Bullard that an apology to the City Manager and the Finance Department employees would be appropriate.
Louise Mutispaugh, Chair
Preston Allen, Member
C.D. “Tarheel” Davies, Member
Council Members Wise and Bullard respond:
We believed at the time we presented our evidence initially, almost a year ago, and our further investigation has since proven, that irregularities in the management of city finances not only exist but are serious and possibly illegal in nature. We realize that these are serious allegations, and we would not be making them if we did not believe them to be true as proven by our evidence. Of equal concern is the City Manager’s open defiance of our authority. We have been told by several members of the Finance Department staff that they were ordered by the City Manager not to cooperate in our own investigation, which we conducted independently when it became obvious to us that the Finance Committee was biased in favor of the City Manager. Accordingly, much of the evidence we offer will be in the form of comments from anonymous workers.
Our investigation has concluded:
1. The City Manager is both unconcerned and overly concerned with the day-to-day running of the Finance Department. On the one hand, employees tell us that he is inclined to micro-manage certain accounts. On the other hand, other employees say that he is unconcerned about the size of overall budget increases in recent years. “He’s got his grubby hands all over my books,” one told us. But another said, “I don’t think he’s even aware what the city budget is. I’ve never seen him walk through that door.” Clearly, something is the matter.
2. According to a newspaper account from The Jeffersonville Herald, the city’s revenue and expenditures have not balanced for the current and next budget years, leaving more than $4 million unaccounted for. Unfortunately, our own investigation was unable to track the missing and unaccounted-for funds. The City Manager has denied that such a discrepancy exists, even though, for once, the media has gotten the story right.
3. The City Manager has openly exhibited inappropriate and immoral behavior toward certain staff members of the Finance Department. In particular, he has entered into an obviously adulterous relationship with one female staff member, showering her with flowers and other expensive gifts. (The staff member denied the relationship but was obviously not being truthful.) As further evidence, we submit that the City Manager has gone in the past year from little concern for his physical appearance to an overly fastidious attitude, including designer haircuts and expensive outfits. This is a radical change from the individual whom we criticized two years ago for being unconcerned about his physical appearance in a highly public job. There is obviously no other explanation than that he is trying to attract and keep the attention of the opposite sex.
4. The City Manager intentionally presents proposed budgets that council members are unable to fathom. It is obviously his strategy to “keep us in the dark.” Using hifalutin terminology such as “disbursements” and “ad valorem” and numbered categories to correspond to the different funds are two examples of his obfuscation. Indeed, in the words of one Finance Department staff member: “We had a perfectly simple system here for years. Then two years ago he insists that we adopt some ‘standard’ system out of some accounting textbook that the state supposedly was requiring cities to do. I’ll bet. None of us can understand it except him and his bimbo.”
5. Following the resignation in disgust of the previous Finance Director, the City Manager went out of his way to bypass the authority and effectiveness of the Acting Finance Director. While we believe the Acting Finance Director should have been more forceful in her dealings with the City Manager, and should have reported all questionable behavior on the part of the City Manager directly to City Council members, this report is in no way intended as a criticism of her. For example, the City Manager ordered flowers, at city expense, for the secretaries in all city departments on National Secretaries’ Day. It was an obvious ploy to disguise the individual in the Finance Department whom he really wanted to give flowers to. Yet the Acting Finance Director never informed the Finance Committee or City Council of this obvious evidence of the City Manager’s inappropriate involvement in the “affairs” — pardon the pun — of the Finance Department.
As a result of these myriad transgressions by the City Manager, morale has reached rock-bottom among employees of the Finance Department. “This has become an awful job,” according to one. “We used to come and go as we pleased. Now there always has to be at least one person around in case somebody from the public walks in with a stupid question, and we are required to take our coffee breaks and lunch hours at prescribed times. And he’s taken away the Internet access from our computers. Do you know how much easier the Internet made shopping in this town?”
Admittedly, we joined other City Council members in being among the City Manager’s most ardent supporters when he was hired. We believed he would bring a sense of professionalism to city departments. Instead, he has brought distraction and discord. It is with deepest regret but also a sense of concern for the citizens of Valleydale, then, that we, Council Members Wise and Bullard, respectfully reject the Finance Committee’s conclusions and urge the City Council to adopt the following resolution:
WHEREAS, City Manager Ron Allen “Don” Prentice has openly defied the Valleydale City Council, and
WHEREAS, the City Manager has engaged in activities that can only be deemed morally reprehensible, and
WHEREAS, under his stewardship questionable accounting practices have been adopted in the city’s budget, leading to large amounts of missing or unaccounted for funds, and
WHEREAS, as a result of the City Manager’s actions morale in the Finance Department has plummeted and citizen confidence in the Department has disappeared,
NOW BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the following actions be taken by the council:
1. That the Council terminate Ron Allen “Don” Prentice as City Manager, or, if it so chooses, give him an opportunity to resign voluntarily.
2. That City Council assume direct authority to oversee employees of the Finance Department on a day-to-day basis, and that Committees of Council be given similar responsibility for other city employees, including the full power to hire and fire department heads.
3. That the council in its wisdom accept and review this report in executive session and order it forever sealed to avoid embarrassment to the City Manager, the former Finance Director and the Acting Finance Director, and that no recording or minutes of that session be taken.
Eaton Wise, Council Member
Rondah Bullard, Council Member
The city manager’s news conference
Prentice: I have no opening statement. Let’s get right to your questions.
Q: (Bill Williams, Channel 9, Wilson) Mr. Prentice, how do you feel about the Finance Committee’s report?
P: It’s what I expected. They found nothing because there was nothing to be found.
Q: (Tori Baxter, The Jeffersonville Herald) What about the rebuttal from Council Members Wise and Bullard?
P: It’s garbage. Next question.
Q: (Mel Looney, WHIC-FM, Beausoleil) Don’t you think you’d better elaborate, Don? There are a lot of —
P: Maybe you didn’t hear me. It’s garbage. That’s elaboration enough.
Q : (Williams) What about the accusations that you and a finance department employee —
P: Pure sleaze. I’m not even going to dignify it with a response. Look, doesn’t anybody want to ask me about the Finance Committee’s findings? They’re the ones that matter.
Q: (Tori Baxter): Mr. Prentice, Council Members Wise and Bullard in their report cited a story in The Herald regarding inconsistencies in budget figures —
P: Well, that shows how confused they were if they believed what was in the newspaper. You listen to me, little lady, you’re lucky you didn’t get your butt sued over that story. Remember that the committee put no faith in the story whatsoever. I don’t know how you can continue to show your face around here. I’d be too embarrassed.
Q: (Baxter): Sir, there seems to be little substantiation for Wise’s and Bullard’s other claims, including —
P: Well, now you’re talking. I’m surprised you of all people noticed that. The long and short of it is that Council Members Wise and Bullard don’t understand anything about municipal finance, and the Finance Committee does. That explains about 98 percent of the problem.
Q: (Ellen Harper, Channel 7, Jeffersonville) What’s the other 2 percent, Mr. Prentice?
P: That’s a smart-ass question. I was speaking figuratively. Look, this whole business was the result of misunderstanding on their part. After some initial, frustrating, futile attempts to explain to them how city finances work, I gave up. Maybe that was my only mistake. I probably should have kept trying, as useless as that seemed. So let them take their best shot. I have ultimate faith in the other City Council members. Again, I’d like to point out that the official report, the one done by the only appropriate body to conduct the investigation, couldn’t find a single thing to criticize. The other two just don’t like me. Why else would they get on me about the way I dress? They were the ones who were on my case a year ago about me looking sloppy. Go figure.
Q: (Looney) Don, it sounds like there are a lot of disgruntled Finance Department workers.
P: Yeah, and all of them anonymous. Even if you assume that Wise and Bullard didn’t make up those quotes, I’m not surprised the people didn’t want to be identified, since they were complaining that I’ve forced them to act more professional.
Q: (Baxter) What do you think will happen Tuesday night?
P: As I said, I have ultimate faith in the other council members. I’m not going to comment further at this time. That concludes this press conference.
Q: (Baxter, shouting after him) Will you resign?
P: Hah! You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well, write this down, little lady, and stick it in your newspaper: There is no goddamn way I’ll quit.
Some of the information given below is not on the record. Note how Tori Baxter deals with sources who do not want to be on the record, and how she negotiates the agreement before she gets any information. You will need to determine whether and how to use and attribute the information those sources provide. Assume that you are able to find and read the city council minutes referred to below by Luverne Stamp, and that those minutes confirm the vehement argument between Prentice and Wise that Stamp and Turpin refer to.
When Tori Baxter gets to her office Thursday morning, there is a brief handwritten note in her mailbox: “Tori — This is all so hateful. Why can’t everyone just get along? Please don’t call me. I have no further comment. — Louise Mutispaugh.” Tori is hoping to have more luck with the other players.
Q : Hi, is this Alice Turpin? Hi, this is Tori Baxter with The Jeffersonville Herald. Sorry to bother you at home.
Turpin: Better here than at the office, Tori.
Q: Well, that’s what I figured. I know we haven’t had much contact with each other recently, but I’m trying to get a handle on this business with Mr. Prentice, the Finance Committee and council members Wise and Bullard.
Turpin: Yeah, join the club. Look, I’ve generally been impressed with your budget stories, because you seem to have a basic understanding of stuff and an ability to get that across to ordinary citizens. And as far as all this business, I sure would like folks to know what’s really going on. But it all has to be off the record.
Q: Off the record isn’t useful to me or my audience, Alice. It means I can’t use anything you tell me. Is that really what you mean?
Turpin: No, I didn’t realize that. I’d like to point you in a couple of directions, direct your inquiries a little, but nothing that winds up directly in the story. And if my name ever got used, unless and until they fire Don Prentice, I’d be history. I’m in between a real rock and a hard place. Can we work something out?
Q: What you’ve described to me is called deep background, Alice. Can we get any closer to on the record than that? I’d like the story to include some of what you tell me.
Turpin: Sorry, no way. There are things I know that would be traced right back to me if they were reported directly. I’ve got to stay with what you call deep background. Okay?
Turpin: You might get in touch with Luverne Stamp. I think she’s working in Mountain City now. She always played it pretty close to the vest, but she might have some things to say on the record. She was pretty upset when she left here.
Q: Thanks, I’ll definitely give her a call. Meanwhile, you’ll talk on deep background, right?
Turpin: Right. I hope you understand how much I’m trusting you. Here goes: Your budget story last fall hit the nail on the head. There is one hell of a lot of money unaccounted for in the city budget — more than you said, actually — and it wasn’t an arithmetic error. Bullard smelled a rat, but she hates Prentice so much personally that she’s blind to what’s really going on. Plus she’s dumb as a sack of rocks, as you might have surmised.
Q: Why does she hate Prentice?
Turpin: I have no idea. Ask her.
Q: What about Wise?
Turpin: He obviously hates Prentice, too, but for a different reason. As nearly as I can tell — and I am pretty bright when it comes to the city budget, Wise was a part of Prentice’s little scheme until a couple of years ago. It was pretty cozy for a while, but then it blew up. If you check council minutes from about two years ago you’ll discover a budget work session at which Wise kept insisting that the City Council’s office budget be increased even more. That was code for him wanting a bigger slice of the unaccounted-for money. They got into a shouting match right there. After that, Prentice froze him out, and Wise has been retaliating ever since.
Q: Let me make sure I’ve got this clear: You’re saying that the unaccounted for money in the city’s budget over the last couple of years —
Turpin: Longer than that.
Q: Okay, in the couple of years that I’ve been covering the city, the unaccounted for money is going into the city manager’s pocket? And before that into Wise’s pocket, too?
Turpin: Not all of it, but yes, that’s it.
Q: Why are Louise Mutispaugh and the Finance Committee backing Prentice, then?
Turpin: She isn’t, necessarily, she just doesn’t like to fight. The smoother things go, and the more people get along, the happier she is. She’s a non-starter in all this. Her head’s in the sand. The Finance Committee’s so-called investigation was bogus. They talked to Prentice a couple of times, and nobody else as far as I can tell. Not to me, anyway. They accepted what he told them. The other two committee members went along with whatever Mutispaugh wanted to do.
Q: Okay. Wise and Bullard also accused Prentice of having an affair with one of your employees.
Turpin: God, that would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. All Rondah Bullard can think of is Don Prentice bonking some stupid kid and then sending her flowers and candy. Smell the coffee, Rondah.
Q: What do you mean?
Turpin: I mean the kid is as sharp as a tack. She isn’t in love with Prentice, she’s blackmailing him. She figured out what was going on, and instead of going to Luverne or me with it, she went to Prentice. If you get my drift.
Q: I think so, but you’d better make it clear.
Turpin: She told Prentice she knew what he was up to, and that he’d better cut her into the deal if he knew what was good for him.
Q: You know this?
Turpin: I haven’t confronted her. But, like I said, I’m smart enough to figure it out. I have seen the books, I know her salary, and I’ve seen where she goes on vacation and what she wears to the office now. She’s definitely getting a piece of the action.
Q: What’s her name?
Turpin: I’ll give it to you, but for God’s sake be careful when you talk to her. If she figures out that I’ve been talking to you, she goes straight to Prentice, and I’m hanging from the nearest light pole 10 minutes later. Try asking her about being accused of having an affair. That might flush her out of deep cover.
Q: Okay. Who is she?
Turpin: Mary Quillian. Lives in Beausoleil. She graduated from Tech a couple of years ago with an accounting degree. She went to work for the city about a year and a half ago, supposedly just for a little while while she studied for her CPA exam.
Q: How long have you suspected all this was going on?
Turpin: I’m a professional finance manager, for God’s sake. If several million bucks disappears from the city budget over several years, I’m gonna know about it.
Q: Then why didn’t Luverne Stamp know about it?
Turpin: I’m sure she did. Why do you think she quit?
Q: Did you talk to her about it?
Turpin: Nope. You’ve got to understand the culture of the Finance Department. Prentice was in there snooping around constantly. When I figured out what was going on with him and Quillian, I was afraid to talk about it with anybody. The walls might have ears.
Q: But you didn’t talk about it with Stamp before Quillian arrived, either.
Turpin: I didn’t know for sure that anything was wrong until after Quillian arrived. I suspected stuff, but before my last promotion I never got to see enough of the books.
Q: But if you’ve known about it for as long as you have, why haven’t you blown the whistle?
Turpin: Because you know what happens to whistle-blowers. Look, it’s one thing to discover that the bottom lines don’t match, like you did. It’s another to figure out where the hell it went. Whoever does blow the whistle on this is only gonna get one shot, so it had better hit the target. Otherwise they’re dead meat.
Q: Couldn’t you have quietly gone to City Council with any of this?
Turpin: Same problem. If they’d mishandled it, I’m history. And there’s definitely an old boy network among city managers. By the time Prentice got through with me I’d be lucky to find a job mopping city hall bathrooms in South Succotash.
Q: Why do you think council would mishandle it?
Turpin: For one thing, I’m not sure enough of them have the stomach to finish the kind of fight it would start. Prentice is tough. He’d fight hard, as you probably already know. Then there’s the intelligence factor. Do you know what the department heads call Bullard?
Q: You mean the Frosted Flake?
Turpin: Okay, you’ve heard that. Only two of the council members are really dim, including Bullard, but that’s still too risky as far as I’m concerned. And neither the council nor I have subpoena powers, which I suspect it would take to do the job right. You’d have to be able to look at personal bank accounts, offshore deposits, stuff like that.
Q: Are you saying —
Turpin: I’m saying every dog has his day. Or in this case, her day.
Q: You know, I’ve never understood what that meant.
Turpin: Okay, I’ll put it another way. Stay tuned.
Q: Well, if you’re not going to try to resolve this through City Council, how —
Turpin: Like I said, stay tuned. City Council isn’t the only way to go with this.
Q: I need to know when I’ll be able to get what you’ve told me on the record.
Turpin: I’ll tell you when it’s all right. Probably when Prentice is standing on the scaffold with the noose around his neck. Good luck with your story. ’Bye.
Q: Wait a minute. How about after the City Council makes a decision on Prentice? Can I go on the record then?
Turpin: Good lord, no. I’d still be dead meat, especially if they vote to keep him, which they’ll do.
Q: When, then?
Turpin: Look, there is still another shoe to drop. You’ll know when that happens, if it happens. Then call me, and I’ll tell you then that you can go on the record. ’Bye.
Q: Hi, Ms. Stamp? It’s Tori Baxter from The Jeffersonville Herald.
Stamp: Hey, I told you you’d be calling me back someday.
Q: How about that.
Stamp: Don’t tell me the Prentice business has finally been resolved.
Q: Hardly. The Finance Committee finally released its report this week, and that cleared him. But Council Members Wise and Bullard included a dissent that still calls for his resignation.
Stamp: No new evidence, though, I’ll bet.
Q: Just a story I wrote a couple of months ago about the current and proposed budgets. Did you see that?
Stamp: Somebody sent it to me. Interesting.
Q: You’re not going to tell me you were surprised.
Stamp: Are we on the record?
Stamp: Okay. Give me a second. (pauses). Right. On the record: It is troubling that some of the city’s elected officials and their city manager still have not resolved their differences. It is fair to say that the controversy had a lot to do with my decision to resign.
Q: That’s it?
Stamp: That’s not enough?
Q: You’re not worried that people will interpret that to mean you were partly responsible for the irregularities?
Stamp: Okay. I’ll add this: Part of my frustration had to do with Mr. Prentice’s insistence on being heavily involved with the day-to-day management of the budget and the Finance Department employees.
Q: Would you like to comment on whether you think any of the accusations against Prentice are true?
Stamp: Not on the record.
Q: Ah. How about not for attribution?
Stamp: Depends on how you will refer to me.
Q: How about “someone familiar with the workings of the Finance Department”?
Stamp: That could point to Alice. Surely you don’t have her on the record.
Q: Okay. How about “a source familiar with the city budget process”?
Stamp: That’ll do. That could mean anybody on council or the Finance Committee, I suppose. Okay, then, from someone familiar with the city budget: There is money unaccounted for in the city budget. There has been for some time. Where it went is what isn’t clear. Good luck finding that out.
Q: Not for attribution, does Wise know about this?
Stamp: Council Member Wise is aware that the specific problem has to do with unaccounted for revenue, and the fact that it has exceeded spending for several years. The fact that he will not say that publicly is curious. His problem with the city manager appears to be due partly to the revenue problem and partly to personal animosity.
Q: Wise used to support Prentice. Do you know when that changed?
Stamp: Again, not for attribution: It appeared to begin after he and Prentice crossed swords over the City Council’s allocation in a budget work session about two years ago. Look in the minutes.
Q: I need to ask a couple more questions on the record. How do you think this will be resolved?
Stamp: I have no idea how it will be resolved. I’m fairly sure that Tuesday night’s meeting will not be the end of it, though.
Q: How do you –
Stamp: That’s all I’ll say, Tori. Good luck with your story. ’Bye.
Q: Hello, Ms. Quillian? This is Tori Baxter with The Jeffersonville Herald.
Quillian: Sorry, I don’t want a subscription. I watch the news on TV.
Q: No, Ms. Quillian, I’m not selling home delivery. I’m a reporter with the paper. I cover Valleydale and Blue Ridge County.
Quillian: Oh. Oh. Uh —
Q: Ms. Quillian, I’ll say up front that I need to talk to you about something rather distasteful for a story I’m working on. But it’s important to you that you hear me out.
Quillian: What do you mean?
Q: I’m sure you’ve heard of the criticisms Mr. Wise and Ms. Bullard have made about Mr. Prentice and your department.
Quillian: Good Lord! Has that been in the paper? They told me it would all be kept secret!
Q: Who told you that?
Quillian: Mr. Wise and Mrs. Bullard, when they talked to me about — uh, no comment.
Q: Ms. Quillian, Mr. Wise and Ms. Bullard have accused Mr. Prentice of having an adulterous relationship with someone in the Finance Department. I have been told that that person is you.
Quillian: That’s a lie! Don — Mr. Prentice — and I have a strictly professional relationship. Those people are just being hateful. And if you print it I can sue you, right? Because it isn’t true?
Q: Ms. Quillian, I’m confused. You say your relationship with Mr. Prentice is professional. I thought that staff-level employees report directly to a department head, who reports to the finance director, who reports to the city manager. Why would you have a professional relationship with Mr. Prentice?
Quillian: I, uh . . . . Oh, this is so not happening! No comment. I’m out of here. (Hangs up.)
Q: Hi, Mr. Prentice. This is Tori Baxter.
Prentice: And what can I do for you, young lady? I hope you’re not going to grill me some more about those ridiculous comments from Mr. Wise and Mrs. Bullard in their so-called report.
Q: Actually, sir —
Prentice: I thought I made it pretty clear at the press conference that I’d said my piece.
Q: In that case, can we talk about what’s likely to happen Tuesday?
Prentice: I thought I was pretty clear about that, too. No further comment.
Q: Well, then, what about after Tuesday?
Prentice: What the hell do you mean?
Q: Do you believe that whatever happens at the council meeting Tuesday will be the end of this controversy?
Prentice: There’s no controversy. There are just two very confused City Council members. And I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Tuesday will be the end. Goodbye.
Q: Mr. Davies, it’s Tori Baxter with The Jeffersonville Herald. I’d like to talk to you about the Finance Committee’s report.
Davies: Oh, you’ll have to get with Louise about that. That whole thing caught Preston and me both at a really busy time, so we agreed to just let Louise handle it and sign off on whatever she came up with.
Q: You can’t comment on whether Mr. Wise’s and Ms. Bullard’s accusations have any validity?
Davies: Nope. I mean, I didn’t do any investigating of my own. Louise was sure they were groundless, so Preston and I took the easy way out. Like I said, we didn’t have the time to roll our sleeves up. ’Bye.
Q: Ms. Bullard, this is Tori Baxter with The Jeffersonville Herald.
Bullard: Oh, yes, Miss Baxter. Eaton told me you might be calling. I have no comment beyond what is in the report.
Q: Ms. Bullard, are you sure the city manager is having an adulterous affair with Ms. Quillian?
Bullard: Well, nothing else would explain his behavior, would it? I have a duty to all the Christian people in our community, whom I consider my constituency, and I take that duty very seriously. I believe they are sick of this sort of behavior in our public officials, ever since President Clinton. I may not have been able to do anything about Mr. Clinton’s immorality, but I can set our own house in order. There is no place in public life for immoral people. Now this is all off the record, of course, but —
Q: Excuse me, ma’am. We are on the record. Is there a reason why you want to go off the record now?
Bullard: I didn’t realize — I guess I should have known when you said who you were. Well, I have nothing to hide about my Christian faith. But I do want to talk off the record now, because I don’t want to harm the young lady unnecessarily.
Q: Okay. You’re off the record now.
Bullard: Thank you. I feel badly for Miss Quillian. Perhaps there is time for her to see the error of her ways. And as our Lord taught us, I would not be the one to cast the first stone.
Q: Back on the record. What about the budget irregularities you and Mr. Wise are alleging? You got no support from the Finance Committee in its report. Do you think Mr. Prentice is directly responsible for those?
Bullard: Oh, you’ll have to talk to Eaton about that. God bless you. Goodbye.
Q: Hi, Mr. Wise, this is Tori Baxter with The Jeffersonville Herald.
Wise: Well, I told the mayor this would happen if we made the report public. You media vultures swooping down to pick over —
Q: Yes, sir. I noticed that you relied exclusively on my earlier budget story to support your accusation in the report of financial irregularities in the city budget.
Wise: My, we do have a big ego for such a little girl, don’t we?
Q: Sir, my story merely pointed out that the revenues and expenditures didn’t match. The tone of your addendum to the Finance Committee Report was that that discrepancy was intentional and directly the responsibility of the city manager. Are you saying —
Wise: What we are saying is in the report. I’d be very careful about putting words in our mouths if I were you.
Q: I’m not about to do that, sir. That’s why I called. I want to hear in your own words why you think those discrepancies exist.
Wise: I’m not prepared to speculate at this time.
Q: Are you saying it could be an honest mistake?
Wise: I’m sure anything is possible.
Q: And yet you thought it was grounds for recommending the dismissal of Mr. Prentice.
Wise: You media people are all afflicted with tunnel vision. That was just one transgression we cited in our report. Let it speak for itself.
Q: But you offered little substantiation for any of the accusations in the report, sir.
Wise: What substantiation do you media people need beyond the word of honest public servants who conducted a thorough investigation and want to do right by the citizens of Valleydale?
Q: Sir, you were once a keen supporter of Mr. Prentice. What happened?
Wise: It’s outlined in our report.
Q: But your change of heart about him was quite abrupt. It appeared to take place pretty suddenly about two years ago.
Q: Sir, how long have you been aware of what you call the irregularities in the city budget?
Wise: I’ll have to admit I first became aware when I read your story in November.
Q: You had no inkling earlier? At at least two council meetings before that story was published, you made allegations of irregularities.
Wise: I did no such thing. You are confused about the time frame.
Q: Sir, didn’t your animosity toward Mr. Prentice begin with a disagreement over the City Council’s allocation during a budget work session about two years ago?
Wise: That’s a rude, impertinent comment! You weren’t there! I was. I remember distinctly what happened. I won’t respond to such a vicious allegation!
Q: Why are you characterizing it as a vicious allegation?
Wise: This interview is over! (Hangs up)
Q: Mayor Hostetter, this is Tori Baxter.
Hostetter: Talk to me Tuesday after the council’s executive session, Tori.
Q: Executive session? Why are you holding a closed meeting about this?
Hostetter: Tuesday. I’ll talk to you Tuesday. ’Bye-bye, Tori. (Hangs up.)