April Fools

A Denver Post reporter mistakes an offhand joke for an actual story.

Most staffers at major metropolitan dailies go their entire careers without writing a front-page article that turns out to be completely bogus. So kudos to the Denver Post's Trent Seibert, who's managed to pull off this rare achievement twice in the span of a month. Someone inform the Pulitzer committee.

But while the first error was acknowledged, Seibert and the Post haven't admitted that a second gaffe was made -- and that's frustrating to state house-minority leader Dan Grossman, who was the subject of article number two; in it, he was said to be considering a proposal that would amend the photo-radar law to make it friendlier to adulterers. But nothing could be further from the truth.

"I'm very displeased," Grossman notes in regard to the Seibert story and a followup, published on April 2 and 3. "This is certainly not what I want to be spending my time on right now, with only a few weeks left to go in the session and a lot of important decisions yet to be made."

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

Seibert, for his part, didn't respond to several messages left by your humble correspondent, and his reticence is understandable. After all, the comments that formed the basis of his generally straight-faced reports were made on April Fools' Day in a room -- Grossman's office -- where all of those present were laughing.

"Everything was in a joking context," confirms state representative Tom Plant, a Democrat from Nederland who was on hand when the April 1 exchange between Grossman and Seibert took place. "I wasn't under the impression that anyone was seriously discussing amendments to legislation."

A misunderstanding about the legislative process is nothing new for Seibert. In a March 1 page-one Post article, Seibert claimed that Governor Bill Owens was "taking millions of dollars from the state's employee retirement program to help balance the budget." But as it turns out, the scheme to withhold a percentage of the state's payments to the Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA) over a four-month period hadn't gone beyond the idea stage. Moreover, Owens couldn't turn this notion into reality without legislation allowing him to do so -- and at the time of publication, no such proposal had been presented, let alone passed and signed into law ("Spin Cycle," March 14).

Because Owens spelled all of this out at a well-attended news conference held just hours after the story appeared, lying low wasn't an option. The Post quickly pulled the bungled information from its Web site, replacing it with a hasty rewrite that also turned up in the next day's "bulldog" (the version of the Sunday paper sold on Saturdays). In addition, the main Sunday edition contained a correction that downplayed the scope of the screw-up (it stated that a "point" was faulty, not the entire article), even as it conceded that the facts of the matter had been given an uncomfortable twist.

If anything, "Photo-Radar Idea Shields Adulterers," Seibert's April 2 offering, was even loopier than its embarrassing predecessor. Grossman, the article declared, was floating an amendment that would prevent snapshots of speeders from being mailed to their homes with tickets -- the implication being that lawmakers afraid of being caught on film with someone other than their spouse would be more likely to support the concept as a whole.

"I call it the adulterers amendment," Seibert quoted Grossman as saying. "The purpose is to increase traffic safety, not to catch people cheating on their wives."

Grossman doesn't deny that such words came out of his mouth in Seibert's presence. But according to Grossman, they were nothing more than wisecracks that the reporter treated as something else entirely. "I have never introduced, nor will I ever introduce, a bill to shield adulterers from having their identity revealed by photo radar," he maintains, adding, "I never said, 'This is my proposal,' or that I was going to introduce an amendment along those lines. It never happened."

So what did take place? As Grossman tells it, a group consisting of three legislators, including Plant, plus a staff member and Seibert were hanging out in Grossman's office talking about photo radar, "and Trent brought up this incident that happened in Texas where a legislator was caught on photo radar with a girl in his car, and the following year, photo radar was discontinued in Texas. And we all laughed. Then Tom [Plant] said, 'He must have been in the majority,' and we all laughed at that, too. Then we started talking about the motivations of the people who are fighting photo radar here in Colorado, and Trent brought up the topic of blocking out the passenger seat in the photo. Everybody laughed at that, and I said, 'Oh, yeah, we could call it the adulterers amendment.' And everybody laughed again -- and that was basically the end of the conversation."

If this account is accurate -- and Plant's memory of the events is remarkably similar -- the person who first mentioned photo radar in the context of adultery was Seibert, and Grossman was merely joining in the fun. But the article as published didn't indicate that the "adulterers amendment" remark emerged during a bull session. Instead, it built a case for the proposal using a pair of anecdotes. One concerned the story of an unfaithful husband nearly caught in the act by photo radar; his fate was chronicled by the Post in 1998. The other involved rumors about a "Colorado legislator who had to come up with a Texas-sized tale for his wife after getting snapped by photo radar with a woman he had no business being with" -- but Seibert confessed that "Denver police and other local police departments say they don't know of any such incident.

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