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Spin Cycle

Rich Barry

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.

As for Hopkins, he could hardly seem less upset about what appears on the surface to be an epic gaffe. "I'd hate to see the reporter and the paper get beat up too much over this," he says. "I think they've been very gracious and responsive." He goes on to pump up the concept of using the PERA nest egg as a cash machine, maintaining that "the fund is overcapitalized. If every known obligation came due today for PERA, they could pay them all off and still have over $900 million in the bank. That's significant, and one of the reasons it came forward from the Joint Budget Committee in the first place."

Such remarks raise several obvious questions: Was Seibert spun by activists who were either for or against the PERA notion? Was he purposefully provided with misinformation to further someone's political agenda? And if not, how in holy hell did everything go so wrong? Seibert, recently back from a reporting stint in Afghanistan, doesn't provide any answers. He declines to comment -- and so does Post editor Glenn Guzzo.

Hopkins, however, isn't nearly so reticent, eagerly drawing attention to "No Scandal Here," a Post editorial from March 2 that supported the PERA initiative. This editorial has at least one mistake: It says the board governing the fund "approved the transaction," which isn't true. But it correctly identifies the scheme as a "suggestion," not a going proposition, even as it contends that no one should get too worked up over a plan that "falls far short of outrageous and is barely this side of controversial."

Tell that to all the panicked folks who bombarded the PERA office with phone calls and e-mails after Seibert's story appeared. "I think the way it was framed was disappointing," Kaufmanis says. "Unfortunately, the article scared people who are retired and who have been hearing a lot about Enron and the terrible things that happened to other pensions. This can't happen at PERA -- our benefits are guaranteed for life. So it's too bad we had to spend a lot of time reassuring people instead of doing the real business of PERA."

Chow down: The Post's news and editorial sections aren't the only ones that have been somewhat messy of late. In "Channel 4 Struggles to Reverse Ratings Slide for Local News Shows," featured on March 6 in the paper's entertainment module, the Scene, TV columnist Joanne Ostrow wrote: "Just a hunch, but Aimee Sporer's decision to leave KCNC Channel 4 to 'spend more time with her family' may have been more a push than a jump. It coincides with the station's need to make anchor changes, based on February's ratings slide."

But Ostrow failed to test this theory in advance by phoning either Sporer or Channel 4 vice president and general manager Marv Rockford, as she acknowledged 24 hours later in "Leaving Sporer's Decision," a column that found her swallowing many of the words published a day earlier. "We wanted her to stay," Rockford told Ostrow. "Someone could only have had the worst motives for even suggesting otherwise."

No such flubs have cropped up in the Post's food section -- but since it doesn't exist anymore as a separate pullout, they couldn't have. A February 20 editor's note proclaimed that the regular Wednesday food features will be found from now on in the Scene; the reason given was "production efficiencies." Elaborating on this explanation, Post editor Guzzo says, "The way the paper was put together, food was getting much more space than we had budgeted for it -- and since we have a finite news hole, if we used more for food, we would have less for other things. By doing it this way, we give food the proper amount." Rather than slashing local food coverage, the Post is cutting back on what Guzzo describes as "filler" -- syndicated features and recipes that, given the slow economy, may be of more interest than ever for amateur gourmands who can't afford to eat out as often as they did in the past. But thus far, there's been no outcry: As of last week, the paper had received four complaints, "which, in terms of the number of people who read the Post, is next to nothing," Guzzo says. Other repercussions of the switch include the move of regular Wednesday contributions by Michael Booth and Joanne Davidson to different days. This would seem to displace additional articles, but Guzzo insists that "we have not cut any news hole for other Scene features."

In the meantime, restaurant critic Bill St. John is planning to leave the paper -- but his motivations have nothing to do with the amount of space the Post devotes to food. "I'm moving to Chicago to live with my little brother and write a book I've been wanting to write for quite a while -- kind of a gay memoir," says St. John. "I have hundreds of friends here, so this is very hard for me to do. But I want to start a new life and do this project."

St. John will be awfully tough to replace. He began writing about wine for the Rocky Mountain News in 1983, eventually becoming the main restaurant reviewer there. In 1997, he left to work for Denver Sidewalks, a Web site created by Microsoft -- and when Sidewalks crumbled two years later, he eagerly moved to the Post. He's also been a columnist for New York's Wine & Spirits magazine since 1990, around the same time that he began reviewing eateries for Channel 4. No wonder he's probably Denver's most recognizable food critic.

Insiders say the Post and Channel 4 tried to convince St. John to stay, but his mind is made up. He expects to be headed north in May and will do what's necessary to make his dreams come true. As he puts it, "My son keeps joking that I'll be at McDonald's asking, 'Do you want fries with that?'"

Behind the scenes: The biggest news lately at Channel 7 is the hiring of news anchor Mike Landess, who spent sixteen years at Channel 9 before being replaced in 1993 by current Denver news queen Adele Arakawa. Landess and his former partner, Ed Sardella, were a ratings juggernaut for most of their run -- and since Channel 7's 10 p.m. audience numbers remain as anemic as one of Dracula's dates, station supporters hope local viewers have excellent memories.

Other changes are on the horizon as well, including the departure at month's end of Paul Reinertson, who's worked at the station for seventeen years. Last September, Reinertson testified on behalf of Channel 7 in reference to an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by one of his former colleagues, Dave Minshall, which helps explain why certain cynical media observers are having a hard time keeping their eyebrows out of their hairlines when the reporter's impending exit is mentioned. But officially, Reinertson, who chose not to comment, is retiring.

Speaking of Minshall -- whose award of $562,000 is being appealed by Channel 7 -- he reveals that attorneys for the station recently offered him $75,000 to drop the whole matter and quietly go away. No sale. "Hundreds of people all over the country called to say they were demoted or fired because of their age and how important it was that I fought Channel 7 and won my age-discrimination case," he recalls. "If I settle cheap, I'd be letting all of those people down, and I won't do that. Pay up, you bastards."

It's too soon to tell if another ugly lawsuit involving Channel 7 will surface, but an incident that took place earlier this year is disturbing, to say the least. A Denver Police Department offense report shows that on the weekend of January 26, three Channel 7 photographers -- Greg Verspohl, Perry Drake and Steven Barnhisel -- filed a harassment complaint related to figurines that were left in their mail slots. A January 31 blurb penned by Post columnist Bill Husted labeled them "voodoo dolls," but "effigies" might be a more apt description. The figure left for Drake was African-American, as he is, had its hands bound behind its back with wire or cord, a yarn noose around its neck and a bloody slash painted there. More paint was on the front of the figure -- possibly dripped from the neck wound or drawn to symbolize disemboweling.

Byron Grandy, Channel 7's news director, won't discuss personnel issues, but he does say, "We do not tolerate any behavior like that or any forms of intimidation at this station to any employee here." The photographers aren't talking, either. Attempts to reach Barnhisel were unsuccessful, and both Verspohl, who subsequently left Channel 7, and Drake referred all inquiries to their attorneys, prominent litigators Gary Lozow and John Chanin. In a voice-mail message, Chanin said his clients couldn't speak right now, "and maybe never."

Which is a long, long time.