Friday, May 3, 2013

Press Releases: Can I get a witness?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Remember when public appearances by elected officials were things daily-newspaper reporters went to? Times have changed. On April 16, Republican Governor Paul LePage spoke at a public gathering in Skowhegan, a town whose commercial interests have had a rocky dispute with the guv over his reluctance to issue a bond for investment there. Despite the almost certainty of newsworthy (or at least amazingly quotable) utterances, no media bothered to attend.
So no reporter was present to protest the request from LePage's office to bar recording equipment. Since taking office he's been famously wary of having his words transmitted to the public at large. Nevertheless, no reporter was present, even to take notes, when LePage again demonstrated why that wariness might be justified.
The people of Maine got lucky, no thanks to professional journalists. Only by the purest non-journalistic chance did we learn even more about the troubling ways in which the governor's mind works.
He made the laughable claim (laughing was the response of the UMPI spokeswoman when she heard about it) that there's a "little electric motor" inside a wind turbine on the UMaine-Presque Isle campus, turning the blades even when there's no wind — "so that they can show people wind power works."
At least one intrepid regular person captured LePage's audio and leaked it not to a reporter but to a progressive activist who also blogs for the Bangor Daily News and writes a commentary column for the Kennebec Journal.
The incident has gotten national attention, and again confirms for LePage-watchers that our governor has a dangerously distant relationship with the truth.
It should also confirm for Mainers that our traditional press corps has a dangerously distant relationship with covering our elected officials.
• Even when official faults crop up CLOSE TO THE NEWSROOM, reporters aren't always on top of things. But in a rare example of airing of its dirty corporate laundry, the Portland Press Herald last week ran a sizeable story headlined "Press Herald parent accuses former CEO of misusing more than $530,000."
The Richard Connor era at the PPH was previously most notable for its claims of wonderful profitability to the public — followed by claims of dropping revenue and outright poverty to its employees (who collectively own a portion of the company), resulting in, among other things, massive tensions when it came time for talking about raises.
The legacy of Connor, who left in late 2011, is in its final death throes, now that the Press Herald's employee-theft insurance policy has validated claims Connor misused $537,988.68 in company funds. The man himself steadfastly — almost Trumpishly, now that we think of it — denies any wrongdoing and claims the PPH and its insurance company, Travelers Casualty and Surety, have everything all wrong and that he did not, in fact, do anything untoward.
Of course that hasn't stopped him from admitting doing at least some of the things Travelers determined he shouldn't have, telling reporters for the Press Herald and theBangor Daily News that he did indeed spend company funds for personal dental work, to buy an SUV for his son's use, and on Camden vacation rentals while he was looking for a residence shortly after arriving on the scene in 2009.
It's just, he claims, those expenses were genuinely company-related — so it wasn't theft. He might actually believe that: Connor always had a flair for grandiosity. He treated the newspaper like his personal journal, writing bizarre columns about astrological readings and exercising a very heavy hand in news coverage decisions.
Now we learn he used the paper as his personal bank, too, putting $90,000 in personal expenses on company credit cards and using a further $70,000 in company funds to pay his personal credit card, as well as giving himself "$287,224.78 in unauthorized salary increases and bonuses," according to an accounting released by the Press Herald. Now that's grandiose.