Spin Cycle

A page-one story about Bill Owens was wrong. So why isn't the governor angry?

The Denver Post has gotten a lot of attention from public officials lately. And much of it has been far from positive.

Examples? On March 5, the paper published a letter written by state senator Ed Perlmutter, who condemned a February 26 Post editorial lambasting an amendment he'd put forward. The legislation, Perlmutter wrote, would give "Eagle County or others six months from the date that [the bill] becomes law to come up with money to buy 640 acres of State Land Board open space in Eagle County." Perlmutter felt that the editorial should have divulged that Richard Scudder, a partner of Post owner Dean Singleton, owns property adjacent to the plot in question "and litigated against the sale or development of the land." An editor's note following Perlmutter's missive emphasized that Scudder's involvement had been part of previous reports, but not this one -- "and it should have been."

The next day, Senator Wayne Allard entered the fray with a letter of his own, rebutting information in a March 4 news story related to the bankrupt energy company Enron, and a March 5 editorial. Both offerings stressed that Allard had been among numerous lawmakers to ask for a delay in the implementation of a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission rule preventing accounting firms from simultaneously auditing and consulting for corporations -- a move, the editorial implies, that played a role in weakening a directive that would have outlawed allegedly questionable behavior practiced by Enron and its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. Allard called the pieces "inaccurate and incomplete," and advised the Post to take the advice of actor Jack Webb's character on Dragnet: "Just the facts, ma'am."

Still, those problems paled in comparison to a recent "revelation" concerning Bill Owens. In "Governor Taps Into Pensions," which appeared on the Post's March 1 front page, reporter Trent Seibert led with a grabby assertion: "Gov. Bill Owens is taking millions of dollars from the state's employee retirement program to help balance the budget." Seibert went on to describe a plan approved on February 20 by the Public Employees' Retirement Association board and "authorized by a bipartisan legislative panel called the Joint Budget Committee" to withhold around half of the state's monthly $15 million payment to PERA for four months beginning in March, thereby allowing an extra $28 million or so to linger in the state's general fund until January 2003, when repayments "with interest" are slated to begin. He also quoted critics such as Colorado Federation of Public Employees president "Jo Romano" (actually, her name is Jo Romero) and maintained that state workers "are horrified and will fight what they call a 'backdoor deal' they knew nothing about."

There's a reason these individuals were in the dark: None of the above is true. No PERA money is being held at this juncture, and none will be until legislation is passed allowing it -- and as of March 1, such a proposal hadn't even been offered. Moreover, says PERA spokesperson Katie Kaufmanis, the PERA board has given its staff permission to hash things out with legislators and executive branchers but hasn't endorsed anything yet. "We don't have any control over what the state does," Kaufmanis adds. "The only power we have would be to try and negotiate the best deal we can."

This account is confirmed by Owens spokesman Dan Hopkins. As he tells it, the idea of using PERA funds to stanch the flow of red budget ink was one of several that came up during conversations between state budget director Nancy McCallin and representatives of the Joint Budget Committee -- most prominently, committee director Kenneth Conahan, who didn't respond to numerous calls. Hopkins says McCallin and Conahan, among others, broached this subject with the PERA staff, which subsequently presented it to the organization's board. "The governor personally didn't know about any of this," Hopkins allows.

He found out soon enough. After the March 1 Post hit driveways and doorsteps, Owens's office started receiving calls -- "not hundreds, but dozens," Hopkins calculates. Hopkins reacted by leaving "a message for Trent asking how what we had talked about translated itself into a lead that said the governor is taking millions of dollars from the pension fund." (Hopkins was quoted in the Seibert salvo, as was Kaufmanis.)

According to Hopkins, Seibert quickly phoned with an apology that was echoed by his editor, Dan Haley, and Post city editor Evan Dreyer, all of whom promised that amends would be made. Shortly thereafter, the original story was replaced on the Post's Web site with a hastily rewritten, awfully clumsy version that turned up the next day in the paper's bulldog issue -- the Sunday edition that goes on sale Saturday. And the March 3 Post featured a correction, albeit one whose wording was a tad misleading. "Gov. Bill Owens cannot withhold money from the Colorado Public Employees' Retirement Association," the item read. "That point was incorrect."

Yeah, and the "point" was the basis for the entire article.

Of course, Owens didn't have the luxury of waiting for the Post to take action before setting the record straight -- and as luck would have it, he was scheduled to hold a March 1 news conference to announce a state hiring freeze, as well as other cutbacks intended to help cushion Colorado's budget blow. After Owens dispensed with these matters, he was asked by a reporter about Seibert's story and promptly refuted it in no uncertain terms. By doing so, he gave other media outlets an opportunity to rub the Post's nose in this particular goat cluster, but many of them showed considerable, arguably excessive restraint. A broadcast that afternoon on Channel 9, which, as the Post's partner, usually goes out of its way to air the newspaper's name as many times as possible, said that Owens blasted claims in "a Denver newspaper." Likewise, an Associated Press update spoke only about "a published report," and a March 2 clarification by the Rocky Mountain News's John Sanko quoted Owens's denials, but nothing was printed about why he was making them -- a strange omission, to say the least.

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