OPINION: A smoking gun that shot blanks
The Journal was involved in two stories this past week we wanted no part of, but that ended up presenting a textbook case study in how and how not to practice journalism.
On Friday, July 13, Republican blogger Suzanne Downing put up a post under a click-bait headline of “Smoking Gun” accusing Gov. Bill Walker of breaking state law by submitting an opinion column with a link to a campaign video and the Journal and its parent newspaper the Anchorage Daily News of committing campaign finance violations by publishing it.
On Tuesday, July 17, the House Subcommittee on Ethics was presented with the deposition of former Journal reporter Naomi Klouda in the case against Rep. David Eastman, who was booted from the Ethics panel this session by a 31-6 vote based on a finding that he violated Alaska law by revealing the existence of an ethics complaint against Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux to Klouda on April 28, 2017.
The Journal’s involvement in the Eastman case began that day when Klouda did what real reporters do when they are presented with an allegation: she attempted to verify it.
In the case of Eastman, she was actually following his own advice when he told her that she should call the Legislative Ethics Office and ask Administrator Jerry Anderson about a complaint that had been filed within the previous week against LeDoux.
Unbeknownst to Klouda at the time, though Anderson would quickly make her aware, ethics complaints are confidential until they are resolved. Anderson informed her that he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any complaint and asked who had told her about it.
Klouda, whose interview with Eastman was entirely on the record, told Anderson that he had told her to call the Ethics office and ask about LeDoux.
Because we could not confirm the existence of the complaint, and after Anderson informed us of the serious nature of anyone disclosing a pending complaint, we did not report Eastman’s allegation against LeDoux.
A couple weeks later, Klouda and I met with Anderson at his cramped Downtown Anchorage office where for the second of four times, including a deposition given under oath, she recounted in exact detail what Eastman told her that day.
Unlike Eastman, her version of events has never changed, and his attorney was left with nothing else but to attack her preservation of notes despite all the contemporaneous documentation at the time, the phone records that show she called Anderson immediately after talking to Eastman and Anderson’s own sworn testimony that all support Klouda’s account.
When we reported on the Ethics committee’s recommendation to remove Eastman this past January, LeDoux did confirm that a complaint had indeed been filed against her.
We learned on July 17 that the complaint had actually been filed April 27, 2017, the day before Eastman told Klouda to call the Ethics Office and ask about it.
The reason for the alarm expressed by Anderson on receiving Klouda’s inquiry the very day after a confidential complaint was filed suddenly became clear during the July 17 hearing.
Besides attacking Klouda’s notes by introducing the entirely irrelevant Reuters guidebook and inventing other standards for reporters out of thin air, Eastman’s attorney argued that it wasn’t reasonable to believe that he would do something so stupid as to violate the ethics law by telling her about a pending complaint against a fellow legislator.
Just because an action is stupid doesn’t mean people don’t do it, which brings us to Downing and the striking contrast with Klouda.
Without a shred of evidence, Downing accused the governor of using state resources to promote a campaign video and the Journal and ADN of being accomplices in the violation by publishing the column with the link to YouTube.
Downing didn’t contact ADN Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt to ask about the origin of the column or what the editorial policy is regarding submissions by candidates. Nor did she contact yours truly despite having my cell phone number.
Instead, she published a piece of fake news with no reporting and appointed herself as judge and jury of the Alaska Public Offices Commission to declare it was only a question of how many, not if any, legal violations took place.
Klouda attempted to verify an allegation before publishing it.
Downing made no attempt to verify her allegations.
When Klouda could not confirm the existence of a complaint, we did not publish the allegation.
Even after being informed that the Walker column came from the campaign and not from his state office, Downing has yet to correct or update her post as of the morning of July 18.
Klouda had no agenda when she called the Ethics Office to check on Eastman’s allegation.
Downing’s anti-Walker agenda is plastered all over her blog.
If the Journal shared Downing’s lack of standards, we could have reported Eastman’s allegation of a complaint and the details he described to Klouda along with the obligatory “could not confirm or deny” from Anderson.
We instead chose to be responsible and regardless of how the Ethics committee ultimately rules, Klouda’s effort to get the story right was presented in detail during the July 17 hearing as Eastman’s attorney was left with only an emotional misdirection about her credibility and a defense that boiled down to his client not being that dumb.
Downing won’t make that same argument but the next time you read one of her attacks on her ideological foes keep in mind her standards when she writes about her friends.
Editor's note: On July 19, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Ethics upheld its decision that Eastman violated the law by disclosing the existence of the complaint to Klouda.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].