A PIECE OF WORK

Your tax dollars at work.
While Channel 4 fell on its pantyhosed butt with the most insipid of sweeps week programming, Paula Woodward's "Keep on Truckin'" investigation for Channel 9 offered a classic, if rare, example of television journalism. The premise was simple: Follow city employees--in this case, workers in the Denver Department of Public Works wastewater division--and catch them goofing off. The result was great television: We enjoyed a close-up of one employee's dental work as the camera zoomed in on a big bite of illicit burrito during an unauthorized break. We watched as a two-man crew stopped for snacks first at Burger King, then at Dutch Boy Donuts, then at Chubby's, then at Church's Chicken--and still somehow managed to fit 11 minutes of work into their 6 hours and 35 minutes on the road. At one point, a worker grabbed a metal detector in what looked like an attempt to actually earn his paycheck--but then used it simply to stretch his arm.

Handy graphics charted it all: Of the nine wastewater trucks tracked "at random" by Woodward's crew (although it must have been tempting to follow the fellows with the biggest guts), seven violated department break policy, which calls for one, one-hour lunch stop within six blocks of the job. "It happened again and again and again," Woodward noted in her on-air wrap-up.

What made it particularly sweet was that it had happened before.
In 1988 Woodward followed Public Works street maintenance employees for "Caution: Frequent Stops"--a series that captured so many unauthorized breaks on film it looked like an ad for 7-Eleven. Woodward's enterprise earned her a subpoena (later quashed) to testify at the Career Services hearings disciplining the workers she'd caught in the act. A year later, a Woodward investigation again found Public Works employees making frequent stops. With her 1994 investigation, Channel 9 upped the ante and revealed that the focus of Woodward's latest piece was not the loafers, but the people off camera: their Public Works managers.

The month of May was not a merry one for the department. On May 2, the day Woodward's series started, the city announced its indefinite postponement of the opening of Denver International Airport--a project that falls directly under Public Works' purview. That could explain why department manager Mike Musgrave met 9's request for a comment on the as-yet unaired investigation with a stack of papers and this cover letter: "I'm glad to hear that you are still helping us keep an eye on the quality of service provided for Denver taxpayers."

It doesn't explain the rest of the city's response: four subpoenas demanding that Channel 9 employees produce the unedited surveillance videotape and a press release noting that the Denver City Charter had been specifically amended after Woodward's 1988 investigation to grant the Public Works manager subpoena power in just such situations. Said Musgrave, "Channel 9 is alleging employee misconduct and their videotape is evidence that would be helpful in our investigation."

But their investigation of what, precisely? Two nights later, Woodward reported that a Public Works probe was under way, and "is again focused on workers as it has been before. After six years it's certainly clear there are problems at the top." In Musgrave's office, perhaps? Then a rising star in the department, he was personally in charge of that first investigation, which resulted in not much more than hand-wringing and finger-pointing.

The distinction between worker misbehavior and department mismanagement becomes crucial in the legal papers that now clutter both Denver District Court, where Channel 9 moved to quash the subpoenas, and Denver County Court, where the city is trying to enforce them. "We're not going to take any final action against them [the workers] until we exhaust our search for evidence," says Deputy City Attorney George Cerrone.

The station argues that the city "is attempting to create a dispute with KUSA-TV in an effort to deflect public attention from the waste and mismanagement exposed by KUSA-TV's reporting." In other words, the city has chosen to chill the messenger rather than act on the message.

Musgrave finally went before Channel 9's cameras on May 5. He blamed problems at DIA for diverting his attention and promised to work even harder. (If the Public Works manager so enjoys his subpoena power, why not use it to get the Channel 9 tape filmed from a suitcase that wound up lost in the bowels of the BAE system?)

Musgrave isn't the only one putting in extra hours. The city has hired an outside law firm, Musgrave and Theis (no relation) to argue its case against Channel 9, and the meter already is running. This isn't the first time the firm has enjoyed the city's largesse, either: The auditor's office has on file two contracts totaling $240,000 for Musgrave and Theis's legal work at the airport, and bills for this new litigation have yet to arrive. "Certain extraordinary things come to us, and we have to service our client, the city--we don't have time to sit back and bumble about it," Cerrone explains. "Of course it's going to cost--but we don't know how much it's going to be."

Channel 9 and the city won't meet in court again until June 17--but the cost of Denver's lost credibility is already high. Typically, though, the city concentrates on image, not action. On May 12, the Department of Public Works issued an internal memo: "As a result of the recent negative publicity about the Public Works Department on Channel 9, the manager of Public Works has asked us to tone down our celebration of National Public Works Week. therefore, the mayoral proclamation on the steps of the City and County and the Equipment Display, scheduled for May 16, 1994, has been canceled.

 
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