Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Controversy over Reporter's Reassignment

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Controversy over Reporter's Reassignment

Article excerpt

A Mesa (Ariz.) Tribune reporter who has been the paper's lead writer in a series of investigative stories involving Gov. Fife Symington's role in a savings and loan scandal, has been reassigned following a heated editorial board meeting attended by two of the governor's aides.

Staff writer John Dougherty expressed bitter disappointment at being pulled off the story, saying that his coverage had been "fair and accurate" and that the Tribune has been "out front" in reporting on Symington.

Tribune executive Jeff Bruce confirmed Dougherty's disclosure that he had been reassigned. He also credited the 35-year-old-reporter with having done a good job on the story, but added: "After our editorial board meeting, it was agreed [among editors] that another reporter should handle the story to ensure that no questions regarding the fairness and objectivity of our reporting can be raised."

In interviews with E&P, Both Dougherty and Bruce agreed that the recent board meeting attended by Symington's attorney, John Dowd, and the governor's Washinton-based political consultant, Jay Smith, had reached a highly emotional stage.

"It was very confrontational, very antagonistic," Bruce recalled.

The governor's representatives accused Dougherty of biased coverage, he reported. At one point, Smith challenged him to a fight outside, Dougherty said.

"I said 'OK,' but nothing came of it," Dougherty related.

"It was the other way around," Smith said in an interview. "He asked me to step outside. It is not my habit to invite people outside to fight. Mr. Dougherty is a very agressive person."

Dougherty also said that during the meeting at the Tribune, Dowd accused him of offering to bet Smith that his reporting would bring Symington down. The lawyer also threatened a lawsuit if the newspaper did not withdraw various allegations in Dougherty's stories, Dougherty said.

Dougherty denied proposing any bets in connection with his copyrighted stories.

He conceded, however, that he is an "aggressive interviewer."

"That's what it takes to cut through the bullshit in a story like this," he declared.

Symington, a Republican, who was a real estate developer before his election last year, is among the defendants in a $140 million lawsuit filed in December by the Resolution Trust Corp., a federal agency.

The governor, who has described the suit as a "witchhunt" and "a public hanging," breached his duty while a director of Southwest Savings & Loan Association, which failed three years ago with an estimated loss of $941 million to taxpayers, according to the RTC.

The RTC has said that Symington and other directors were negligent by making risky and speculative loans and investments in violation of banking regulations. It is further alleged that the thrift lost $40 million by investing in a Phoenix hotel, office and retail project, which Symington had developed.

The governor appeared Feb. 20 before the House banking investigations subcommittee to protest the RTC suit.

"Every act against me by my government has been designed to humiliate and embarrass," he told the panel. "I've been treated to a public hanging without the facts, without a hearing, without regard for the principles of fair play."

Earlier, in meeting with editors and reporters at the Washinton (D.C.) Post, Symington had complained that he was the target of a "witch-hunt" by "someone" trying to ruin him politically. …

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