When 2003 Boise mayoral candidate Chuck Winder was the subject of an accusatory phone call placed to voters on the night before the election, local news media-and in particular the Idaho Statesman-jumped to his defense. Now a group of Boiseans, including a former Ada County Prosecutor, a former Boise Depot manager and one of the so-called "John Does" who claims he organized the call, are saying that regardless of how the phone call was delivered, it contained significant truth-and that the Statesman's editorial staff went out of its way to conceal that truth.
This latest chapter of Boise's mayoral scandal began on June 23, when former Ada County Prosecutor Jim Harris sent a letter to local news agencies, Statesman publisher Leslie Hurst and Thomas Chapple, ethics officer at the Virginia-based Gannett Company, which owns the Idaho Statesman. In the letter, Harris asserted that in its stories about the so-called "smear campaign" against Winder, the Statesman had "engaged in an egregious effort to misreport and overtly manage news relating to the involvement of mayoral candidate Chuck Winder, the city of Boise, and campaign tactics involved with that election." Harris also calls the Statesman's coverage of the now-infamous call "at least unethical, and are certainly contrary to the published ethical standards of your company." The motivation for his investigation into the matter, Harris told BW, was only "to set the public record straight, because no one has told the story."
The attack ad's allegations against Winder-namely, that his company used a City Hall connection to allow the company Coast Management to open an office for several months in 1999, rent free, at the city-owned Boise Depot, while the Winder Company was leasing sections of the Depot-have been well-covered by local news media, including the Statesman. In a 2003 interview with the television news station KBCI Channel 2, Winder admitted that the company stayed rent free, and that he "didn't disagree" that taxpayers should be reimbursed when public property is utilized. However, he added that "the city knew" that the Coast Management was in the Depot, and that it was operating in a space that was not part of the 1996 lease agreement between Boise City and the Winder Company.
The Statesman's first mention of the incident came two days later, when executive editor Carolyn Washburn was quoted in a story as saying, "We reviewed the documents, reviewed the law and talked to the players involved. We found no evidence of illegal activity or deceit. Everyone involved agreed the Winder Co. asked for and received permission, so we chose not to publish a story."
Shortly after announcing their decision to bury the story, the paper endorsed Winder in the mayoral election in a November 2 article. In the endorsement, the authors admitted that while Winder's company allowed "an out-of-state company to work rent-free at the Depot," they had found no evidence of wrongdoing.
"The city should have demanded a better deal," the article said. "[Winder] was merely negotiating on his behalf. As mayor, we would expect him to negotiate on the city's behalf."
Following the last-minute calls on the eve of the election, Statesman writers Dan Popkey and Brad Hem consistently described the content of the ad as "erroneously," "inaccurately" or "unfairly" linking Winder to City Hall and Gary Lyman, the former mayoral chief-of-staff ousted during the Brent Coles spending scandal of 2003. In a May 12, 2005, editorial, the paper also called Citizens for Trustworthy Government, the then-anonymous group behind the call, "a secretive band of rogues" who "duped" and "lied to" voters. This is where Harris's complaints begin.
"Their whole advocacy position was to hang the messenger and ignore the message," Harris told BW of the Statesman's coverage. Harris insisted to BW that he is neither a member nor a supporter of the Citizens-in fact, he condemned the ads as "nasty politics"-but he nonetheless wrote in his letter to the Gannett ethics officer that Winder may have broken several Idaho laws by allowing the company in, and that Statesman was aware of the transgression. Specifically, Harris cites laws saying that mayors and city councils may authorize the lease of "property not otherwise needed for city purposes" only by resolution, and laws concerning theft of property.
"The Statesman had clear and substantial knowledge of Winder's wrongdoing and based on its own political observations (knowing that it was about to endorse Winder), failed to report those facts to its readers subsequent to its interview with [then-Depot manager] Georgia Marshall and its own investigation, to the degree that it existed," Harris wrote.
Marshall, who says she managed the Depot from 1996 until retiring in 2004, backed Harris's claims. In a 2003 interview with him, the authenticity of which she later verified with BW, Marshall said that Lyman had "told me that the Winder people had asked him if they, the Winder Company, could put somebody up there, that they were running out of space and if they could use that office space. And Gary said yes."
As for the Statesman's coverage, Marshall responded to Winder's claim, in a November 5, 2003 story by Popkey, that "he recalled asking Georgia Marshall ... to approve the arrangement."
"For Chuck Winder to say that I gave approval for someone to be in there is an absolute joke," Marshall told BW. "That blows me away." Marshall said she didn't have the authority to approve any such arrangement, and that in her sole interview with the Statesman, she told reporter Wayne Hoffman "the same story I'm telling you ... but he didn't ask many questions. Obviously the Statesman didn't think it was that big of a story."
And finally, for the ad: "There's probably truth in that ad, because I think Chuck Winder lied," Marshall said. "I know he lied."
BW contacted Lyman, now living in Utah, to respond to Marshall's claim that he knew of or approved of Winder's depot arrangement. Lyman would not comment on the record.
But Winder, speaking to us on July 11, reiterated his previous defense. "What I would say in response is that I didn't do anything wrong," Winder said. "The city was well aware of this gentleman [with Coast Management], who was actually doing property management for the city on projects associated with the Boise Airport." Winder also denied Marshall's assertion that he had lied to anyone, saying instead that he got approval for the Depot arrangement "back through the mayor's office, at least two years before anyone was aware of the problems there."
Harris's case has seen two major developments in the last week. First, local anti-tax activist Laird Maxwell admitted in an affidavit submitted to the Ada County Courthouse on Thursday, July 7, that "'Citizens for a Trustworthy Government' was a name used by me for purposes of the telephone message." Maxwell also wrote that he both "ordered the recorded telephone message" and "personally paid" Virginia-based Advantage, Inc., for the calls. Advantage then paid Xpedite Systems, the New Jersey-based company that sent the recorded phone messages to several thousand Boiseans, and which is currently named in a civil suit filed by Boise City.
Maxwell also admitted in the affidavit, "I received legal advice from my long-standing attorney and friend, William Litster, and relied on the same." Litster, a local injury lawyer, was named as an "intermediary" between the supposed John Does and previous attorney David Leroy, and could still face a hearing from the City Attorney's office to disclose what he knows.
Following the admission, Maxwell told BW that he had read Harris's letter and agreed with its conclusions. Maxwell had also posted Harris's letter on his Web site, www.idtaxreform.com.
"I stand by the Jim Harris investigation," Maxwell said. "The Statesman's been playing this kind of game for years. They've been doing this kind of creative journalism, editorializing on the front page, for years." Maxwell added that while he based the content of his election-eve call on the 2003 news coverage of the Depot incident, he disagreed-and still disagrees-with the both Winder and the Statesman's insistence that Winder did no wrong.
"The TV and the newspaper confirmed there was a sweetheart deal," Maxwell explained. "[Then-city councilman Jon] Mason confirmed there was a sweetheart deal. Cost taxpayers thousands."
How much, exactly, Coast Management should have paid either the Winder Company or Boise City for usage of the Depot space is not entirely clear, since by all accounts there is no written record of the company's stay. But for comparison, when the Winder Company subleased a portion of its Depot space to Nevada-based ForBio America in 1997, the annual rate was $16 per square foot. The Winder Company paid Boise City $14 per square foot for its lease of Depot space, according to the lease agreement.
Harris claimed, in his interpretation of the Depot floor plan, that the space in question, a stately upstairs office overlooking the Depot's Grand Hall, was 294 square feet-or worth $4,704 annually, at the sublease rate. Winder, in an October 30 Statesman article, figured the square footage at 36 square feet-or $576 annually. In either case, the value for over a year's worth of residency, as Coast Management was reported by both Marshall and Winder to have had, is on par with-or in Harris's estimate, far outweighs-the $580 travel bill that precipitated the downfall of the Coles administration, and the incarceration of both Lyman and Coles.
The other recent turn for Harris's case occurred on July 11, when Popkey, a frequent Statesman commentator on the anti-Winder ads, was a guest on the KIDO 580 AM news program Idaho Today. During a call from former Idaho State Senate majority leader Rod Beck, in which Beck questioned Popkey about the Harris letter, Popkey claimed to not be familiar with the document. He then added, "The issue here is not whether the ad was truthful or not, the issue is who was behind the ad, and compliance with the Sunshine law."
Both Harris and Beck, after hearing that Popkey was apparently unfamiliar with the hefty document sent to his publisher 18 days earlier, used the same descriptor to BW: "Astonishing."
When contacted by BW on July 12, Popkey had still not read Harris's letter, but said he stood by his reporting. "I don't feel comfortable speaking for the Statesman, but I can speak for myself, and I don't believe I provided cover for Chuck Winder," Popkey said. "I reported on it, got what I knew to be the truth about it and explained that in the paper. It's all out there for people to see."
Neither Statesman publisher Hurst nor Carolyn Washburn would return repeated phone calls from BW about whether the editorial staff had been informed of Harris's allegations, or whether the Statesman stands by all previous editorial analysis concerning Winder, the Depot and the content of the attack ad. While leaving a message for Washburn, we were informed by her assistant that the executive editor had "No comment on the Jim Harris letter."
Thomas Chapple, Gannett's ethics officer, also did not return repeated phone calls concerning a possible breach of newsroom ethics by the Statesman. BW was told after more phone calls that Barbara Wall, vice president/associate general counsel of Gannett Co., "has a message for you," but Wall did not call by press time.
As for what will come next in this seemingly unkillable scandal, Maxwell told BW that he did not violate election law through the calls since they didn't explicitly tell voters to vote for or against a candidate. However, in a bizarre twist, both City Attorney Cary Colaianni and Laird Maxwell's current lawyer, Iver Longeteig say that they will continue to battle in court over the phone calls. The City Attorney's office struck first, announcing after Maxwell's admission that they would continue to investigate whether Maxwell worked with any other in making the calls, as Winder has alleged.
"I do not believe he was the sole source," Winder told BW. "He may have actually made the calls, because he's famous for making calls, but someone else paid the money."
Longeteig told BW that if allowed by the judge to intervene in the civil suit against Xpedite and the John Does, he will attempt to compel Winder to produce information-namely, the identity of the Doe who, Winder claimed in a March 11 Statesman story, he had met with in March of 2004. In the article, Winder claimed to have received an apology from the person and threatened to name names unless the others came forward "in a timely manner."
Maxwell would not comment on the record about Winder's claim except to say that he is not the Doe with whom Winder met.
Winder also told BW that Maxwell was not the Doe in question, but said he could not say who it was because "the city process is still looking into that."
To read Gannett's principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms, visit www.gannett.com/go/press/pr061499.htm.