Friday, August 12, 2005

"Officials deny Lafayette's buses took voters to polls"

Thank goodness for real reporters. For guys who fact check and call around.

Today's Advocate story on Bejamin's Wednesday piece demonstrates the value of such people. The Advocate's Kevin Blanchard does the legwork and eviscerates Eric Benjamin's shoddy work, plodding through the highlighted charges and showing how unreasonable they are—and how easy it is to confirm or disconfirm accusations before publishing them. (By the way, where's our "local" paper? And isn't there any editorial oversight of the Times? Who is responsible for that oversight? Benjamin? Powers? No editor of the Times is listed. To whom does an outraged citizen complain?)

At any rate Blanchard makes short work of the claim that city buses were used. So could Benjamin by simply examining the published reports of the PACs involved--which is how the Advocate tracked it down. Then a simple question to the Attorney general's office disproves the allegation that any Fiber 411 complaint has made its way to the Attorney General. The article goes on to point out that Benjamin never begins to try and explain how Durel could have "coerced or compelled" anyone to vote for fiber--certainly encouraging people to contribute to pro-fiber groups coerces or compels no one. No one can demonstrate that a charge is false that has been made only through the vaguest of dark and remarkably insubstantial suggestions.

Part of what is hard to follow in this story is the important distinction between sworn and unsworn complaints. The advocate story only says:
The Ethics Board staff presents complaints to the board, which can OK an investigation with a two-thirds vote, according to Alesia Mottle, a board attorney. Should a person swear a complaint in front of a notary, the board only needs majority approval.
But that is only part of the difference. The most obvious difference is that in a sworn complaint you go before a notary and attest to what you are swearing--you put yourself at some personal legal risk if your sworn testimony turns out to be false--what some might call a lie. False testimony is a crime. That explains the greater weight given to sworn allegations and the lower bar for initiating investigations. The two types of charges differ in two other ways: 1) In a sworn allegation the target of the complaint is notified when the complainer is notified. In an unsworn complaint no one but the complainer knows that the complaint has been received until the commission determines there is something to investigate formally. 2) A sworn allegation must be dealt with within a year while an unsworn one may hang around at the commission for two years.

But here is a way in which both types of complaints are alike: it is illegal to "give out" anything about their contents:
State ethics law makes it a misdemeanor for Ethics Board members and "any other person" to "give out any information concerning a private investigation or private hearing of the (ethics) board without the written request of the public servant or other person investigated."
Blanchard's article toes a very fastidious line when he says that "Benjamin did not identify his column's informational source." Unless Benjamin got it from the Ethics Commission who else but Breakfield would know what was in it and could be the source? Even if Breakfield did not say so directly to Benjamin it had to be someone he told. One odd extra possibility logically exists that might get folks off the hook if they'd been sufficiently devious: someone could come forward, admit to having written the thing up for Breakfield and told Benjamin all about it before it was formally filed. Or Breakfield could admit to having given the complaint to Benjamin before he filed it, possibly evading the prohibition of talking about a complaint after it is filed. But that would make Benjamin's article awfully devious.

The secrecy involved leaves open three real possibilities as to the status of a possible complaint.

1) That no complaint has actually been competently filed. The Ethics Commission's secrecy will make that impossible to say for sure. Maybe this is a pure case of negative publicity. It would certainly be in line with the general tactic of the opposition to throw unsupportable claims out and then not even try much to substantiate them. But given the oddities of the way the law works there is no way that I can see to differentiate pure fabrication from the results of an unsworn complaint that is judged by the commission to be so without merit that it is not worth investigating. (Read on...)

2) That a sworn complaint has been filed but that those accused have not yet gotten notification as they would if such a complaint had been sworn to and turned over to the commission 10 days or more previously. Ethics commission rules require such notification. That leaves open whether or not such a sworn accusation has been validly made to the commission. In 10 days or so at the maximum we'll know by whether or not by whether Durel receives such a letter. (My guess is that the complaints were unsworn; Bill Leblanc's complaint, at least, was apparently filed enough earlier that Durel should have heard by now.)

3) The third possibility is that an unsworn complaint has been filed. In such cases (and this is not clear in the Advocate article which appears to be working from the assumption that any such complaint would be sworn--something the folks at the commission tell Lafayette Pro Fiber is true in only a minority of the cases) the person against whom the complaint has been made, in this case Joey Durel and city officials, is never notified unless and until they're called on to defend themselves after the commission has completed its initial investigation and determined that there might be something to investigate. Right now even Joey can't go down and ask...they won't tell him one way or the other. If the charge is found groundless, and given the research done by Blanchard that appears to be the likely outcome, no one but the complainer will be notified that they were wrong.

In such a case I wonder if Neil will go to Benjamin and collaborate on a story clearing Durel. After all only Neil will know that his charges have been dismissed.

My guess is that he won't. Yours?

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