CHILL THE MESSENGER
It would have been such a pretty sight: Paula Woodward, star TV reporter, hauled off in chains, Sky9 following as the sheriff's car stops first at 7-Eleven for coffee, then at Burger King for fries as it slowly wends its way to Denver County Jail. Live remotes from the gymnasium-cum-dormitory, where Paula--the city's first reporter to gain first-name, Cher-like status with her viewers--discovers that inmates are goofing off. Loafing, even. Nightly reports on prison overcrowding. Equally frequent updates on substandard hoosegow chow. And, of course, exclusive interviews with some of the city's most notorious criminals, since Paula would have no trouble gaining access.
A guaranteed ratings buster. The other stations scrambling to catch up, establishing surveillance on other city departments in hopes that they, too, would find their unedited tapes subpoenaed by Wellington Webb's cabinet members. Kimberly Blake uncovering out-of-date magazines at Denver General Hospital. Julie Hayden catching guys fudging on their basketball scores at the 20th Street Gym. Mike Fierberg discovering anyone actually doing anything at Denver International Airport.
Then the city pulled the plug.
Last Thursday, the day before the City of Denver was to face off against KUSA-TV in Judge Ray Satter's Denver County courtroom, the city finally called it quits.
By then, of course, the Webb administration had already spent over three months and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing Channel 9 for "Keep On Truckin'," Woodward's early May series on loafing at the Department of Public Works' wastewater division. In on-camera discussions of the three-part piece, the station was careful to point out that its documentation of almost a dozen fast-food-obsessed and break-addicted employees was meant not as an indictment of those specific workers, but rather an indication of problems at the top.
Which the Department of Public Works then proceeded to display in abundance.
Before the first segment aired, Woodward asked the city for a reaction to her investigation. She got one immediately, although it was hardly the response the station expected. Webb and the Department of Public Works, in an announcement sent to everyone but Channel 9, revealed that they wanted Woodward's unedited videotapes--and would go to court to get them. When KUSA refused to give up the tapes, public works manager Mike Musgrave subpoenaed them.
Ironically, it is because of Woodward that he has the right to do so. She first tailed public works employees in 1988, resulting in the ground-breaking (and much-copied across the country) "Caution: Frequent Stops." After she updated the piece three years later, the city attorney's office proposed an amendment to the Denver City Charter that gives the mayor and all cabinet members--everyone from the manager of public works to the manager of parks and rec to the manager of aviation--subpoena power, along with the authority to "conduct public investigations" of their departments when the "honesty, competency, and integrity" of employees is assailed. "Any person disregarding such subpoena or refusing to be sworn or to testify," the charter now reads, "shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be punished by a fine, not exceeding one hundred dollars, or by imprisonment not to exceed thirty days, or by both such fine and imprisonment in the discretion of the mayor or manager so conducting the investigation."
Admittedly, it is no picnic being a mayor or department manager these days. But when Denver voters approved this charter amendment--misleadingly billed as a simple "housecleaning" matter--several years ago, they handed the city quite a consolation prize. Bad news in the press? Simply subpoena the reporter.
Say, for example, the Associated Press discovers that the Denver District Attorney's office is investigating allegations of falsified tests and fraudulent construction practices at DIA, as Steven Paulson did last week. Rather than check out the reports, or even the cracked runways that Paulson also uncovered, the city could simply subpoena his notes. Problem solved: No news equals good news. Airport opens on time and under budget.
With the city currently embroiled in the country's largest public works project, to have public works itself--which should be concentrating every extra second on DIA--lavish so much money and attention on Woodward's series is a crime far more heinous than someone eating donuts on-duty. And it wasn't enough that Musgrave, who wasted presumably valuable time sitting through court hearings when he could have been checking excess baggage, and the city attorney's office were involved. Because of the "specialized" nature of the case, the city also signed on outside attorneys, Musgrave & Theis, whose work on this matter now tops $40,000.
The firm's most recent bill to the city, which runs through July 20, includes at least one four-hour meeting that involved not only two Musgrave & Theis attorneys (each charging upwards of $110 an hour) but Kendell Hogue, the public works official in charge of investigating Woodward's investigation, and a city attorney deemed competent enough to handle Denver's legal response to the last two Woodward series but relegated to playing backup on this one. But then, when the the city is trying to squeeze up to $60 million for back-up baggage systems out of an already exhausted $3 billion DIA construction budget, what's a paltry $40,000 (and counting) in fees and untold hours of wasted city employee time?
Denver's last-second surrender came about not because the city realized its expenditures didn't add up, or even because it finally recognized that there was a principle--remember the First Amendment?--involved here. For weeks, KUSA attorney Andy Low had been pointing out the weaknesses of the city's case and asking that it simply give up gracefully. It did so grudgingly, when public works learned that the longed-for outtakes of Woodward's series would add less than half-an-hour of tape to each day's segment. "The prize wasn't worth the fight," says Low. The city dropped its request.
Its subpoena envy remains.
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