Messing With the Messenger

On Tuesday, one of our contributing writers, Leslie Blade, will testify under oath in front of City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee about a story she wrote for CityBeat. Council issued her

Jan 28, 2004 at 2:06 pm

On Tuesday, one of our contributing writers, Leslie Blade, will testify under oath in front of City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee about a story she wrote for CityBeat. Council issued her a subpoena compelling her appearance.

Following internal debate and lots of advice, both solicited and unsolicited, I decided to honor the subpoena and have Blade testify. She'd told me she would do whatever was in the paper's best interest.

This is new ground for everyone involved, including council, and there are important issues at stake. It's been reported that this subpoena is only the second issued by city council in the past 10 years. And it's the first time anyone can remember a reporter being called before council to defend her work.

Journalists are concerned that Blade will be forced to reveal her anonymous sources or turn over confidential documents — taboos in our business. Some media colleagues wanted CityBeat to fight the subpoena on the principle that journalists have First Amendment rights to pursue stories without government interference or intimidation.

As you can imagine, I'm conflicted about what the paper's best interest is here.

On the one hand, we've already helped city council immeasurably by publishing an investigation of Cincinnati Police Department officers who often collected on-duty pay for the same hours they billed federal housing projects for off-duty details (see Protection Racket, issue of Dec. 10-16).

If council wants to look into the department's handling of off-duty assignments, Blade has provided a detailed road map. She spent months poring over Cincinnati Metro Housing Authority (CMHA) time sheets, reviewed internal police department investigations and sifted through evidence boxes in seemingly unrelated court cases. All of this information is available to members of the public, including council staffs and the media.

Blade's story offers dates, times and circumstances of time sheets, internal interviews and court cases. It mentions 18 current or former Cincinnati Police officers, including the current chief and his predecessor, by name.

And yet the only subpoena that council issues is to Blade, sending the message that perhaps CityBeat needs to be looked into instead of (and certainly ahead of) those who apparently bilked the city and the federal government.

We've already done our part by investigating alleged misuse of taxpayer funds, providing context and publishing the results. That's what journalists do. Blade is finished and has moved on to other stories.

If council wants to investigate how police handle off-duty details, that's great. Go for it. I'm sure we'll cover the subsequent hearings and findings.

But CityBeat has no vested interest in the outcome of such an effort by council and therefore can't and won't be a partner in council's work.

On the other hand, clearly CityBeat saw a pattern of problems in how Cincinnati Police officers handled CMHA details from 1998 through early 2003. We wouldn't have published the story if we didn't think the findings were significant and newsworthy.

And if council wants to discuss the story with Blade, why shouldn't she? She's proud of her work, and I and the paper stand behind the story.

If fact, her work spurred Councilman Christopher Smitherman to instruct the city manager to begin an investigation. He also decided to solicit Blade's testimony.

A federal investigation seems to have begun, and at least one officer mentioned in the story has been interviewed by the FBI concerning the violations.

And, in a seemingly related action, Lt. Stephen Wilger — who headed up the CMHA details throughout the four-plus years covered by Blade's story — put in for retirement from the Cincinnati Police Department shortly after the CityBeat story ran and has left the force.

After finding out what Blade's rights are under oath in a council hearing, I ultimately decided to honor the subpoena. She can decline to answer questions regarding her newsgathering process, and she will not be sharing names of sources or information not included in her story.

In my mind, the ideal testimony would go like this on Tuesday: "Ms. Blade, is your Dec. 10 story true?" "Yes, Mr. Smitherman, it is." "OK, thank you for appearing today."

I doubt it's going to be that easy — we're talking about the intersection of politics and media here — but we'll be there. I only hope it's not a waste of everyone's time.