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Inside the Spin Room at a GOP debate

If you’re like most people I talk to as a political reporter, you think the Republican and Democratic debates are pretty much the only opportunities we have in the 2016 cycle to observe the candidates in a setting that their campaigns haven’t choreographed to the ‘T.’

Reporters line up to talk with the GOP frontrunners.

Reporters line up to talk with the GOP frontrunners.

When the debates end, the choreographing returns. Such is the case in the spin room, a post-game arena where candidates and their surrogates go to convince reporters of a successful debate performance.

I saw this chaotic place first-hand while covering the fourth GOP debate, held at the Milwaukee Theatre in November, for WITI-TV. (I’ll see it again after February’s Democratic debate, which will also be in Milwaukee.)

I had heard a lot about what the spin room would be like. Hundreds of reporters, dozens of TV cameras, a free-for-all for the best access to candidates. Some candidates stick to the ropeline, while others wade into the crowd.

Luckily, I thought, we’d get a warm-up of sorts with the undercard candidates — whose poll numbers were so low that they didn’t make the main debate.

When the undercard debate — an event dominated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attacking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — ended, the spin room energy began.

Despite his low poll numbers, Bobby Jindal was the center of attention.

Despite his low poll numbers, Bobby Jindal was the center of attention.

Jindal was first to enter the room and, despite poor poll numbers that contributed to his dropping out of the race not long after, reporters crowded around. Photographers climbed on stepladders and elbowed for position behind us.

Why had Jindal gone on the offensive? Is Christie a real conservative? Does Jindal think of himself as still having a chance at victory?

I had a good but not great position (see photo). Casting my microphone with my outstretched arm, I got around someone’s shoulder and near Jindal’s chin.

A spin room success for a reporter, I learned.

Christie didn’t appear in person, dispatching a campaign manager instead.

By the time the main debate candidates appeared two hours later, the number of reporters had doubled. This included representatives from international media outlets and Entertainment Tonight.

Mike Huckabee's sign-holder in the back hallway.

Mike Huckabee’s sign-holder in the back hallway.

It was some people’s job to hold a vertical sign near each candidate, announcing their presence to journalists across the crowded room.

Some candidates were invited up to do a post-debate interview on FOX Business Network, which had hosted the debate. Most took time to answer questions via satellite on other networks.

Some candidates, like Ben Carson, waded into the crowd. Others, like Rand Paul, spoke briefly at the ropeline before leaving. Ted Cruz only did network interviews. Marco Rubio didn’t appear in the spin room.

Trump worked the ropeline like a red carpet — answering a question, walking a few feet, answering another, all with his wife by his side.

The debate was “elegant,” he told us. Trump had mostly taken the night off from jabbing at his rivals.

When my friend Jessica Arp of WISC-TV asked him about being booed by the audience during the debate, Trump replied, “It’s only in your mind.”

If you parsed through about 95 percent of what was said in the spin room, you could figure out how a candidate thought he or she did that night. Candidates who stayed a long time either had a lot to talk about or felt the need to explain their performance. Candidates who left quickly or didn’t come at all were either frustrated or wanted to let their performance stand on its own.

There were a few minor controversies stirred up in the spin room that night — for one, Carson saying that he wouldn’t hypothetically abort a baby Adolf Hitler — but no groundbreaking news.

I doubt many journalists were swayed by the attempts at spin.

Yet it was fun, for the night, to be part of the choreographed show.


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OPINION: Missouri campus protesters demand their own rights, trample on others’

UPDATES: In late January — more than two months after the incident — the University of Missouri finally suspended Melissa Click pending an investigation, but has still not fired her. That same week, local prosecutors charged her with third-degree assault, for which she was ordered to complete community service and stay out of trouble. She had previously issued an apology for her actions. The other university staffer in the video, Janna Basler, has been “relieved of her duties” as Director of Greek Life for her shameful actions.

In a day of change, the University of Missouri System president and MU chancellor have resigned their positions after weeks of unrest at the place where I spent four years of my life.

Protesters, angry over what they saw as a slow response from university leaders to racial incidents on campus in recent weeks, demanded that the two men resign or be fired. Many were also upset over administrators’ decision to terminate health benefits for graduate assistants.

One graduate student began an eight-day hunger strike. In likely the tipping point, the Missouri Tigers football team refused to practice or play until the university leaders were gone.

A protest group doesn't want journalists to document its activities in a public space.

A protest group doesn’t want journalists to document its activities in a public space.

If you’re looking for commentary on the tension or the ousters, look elsewhere. A different embarrassment to the University of Missouri is what caught my attention Monday:

MU has apparently become a place where professors believe it’s acceptable to use “muscle” to trample on people’s rights.

One of the protest groups, which calls itself “Concerned Student 1950,” has been demonstrating on the MU campus Quadrangle. Some had set up a tent city.

The Quad is perhaps the second-most public gathering place in the state of Missouri — only the statehouse in Jefferson City could top it. Yet, Concerned Student 1950 wanted to keep journalists from documenting their protest at this most public of spaces.

In other words, the people exercising their own First Amendment rights wanted to restrict the First Amendment rights of others.

Shameful. Hypocritical.

“We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship and sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” the group posted on Twitter.

As if they were constructing a fence, they posted signs on the Quad that read “No Media. Safe Space.”

This, of course, did not stop journalists from covering the most newsworthy event on the Missouri campus in years — perhaps since the 1970 Vietnam War protest.

Melissa Click (right), seen in a video telling journalists to leave a public space.

Melissa Click (right), seen in a video telling journalists to leave a public space.

It did, unfortunately and unacceptably, lead to a clash between journalists exercising their rights and protesters willing to trample on them.

Take, for example, Melissa Click.

Click is an assistant professor within the Department of Communications. She’s currently researching “50 Shades of Grey readers” and “the impact of social media on fans’ relationship with Lady Gaga,” according to her bio.

Click has also become an advocate for those protesting on MU’s campus. Via her Facebook page, she asked for advice on getting the students’ concerns “into the national media.”

Which made this professor’s interaction with Tim Tai even worse.

Tai is a student photographer. Monday, as he attempted to take photos of the protest on the Quad, a group of protesters began pushing him back. Another person, Mark Schierbecker, recorded the incident on video.

Click shouts at Tai. Another woman, reported to be a university employee in the Office of Greek Life, pushes him. Fellow students belittle him, and his job.

Tai unsuccessfully tries explaining to those surrounding him that he has the same right to be there and document the protest.

Later, the person documenting Tai’s situation goes up to Click and says he, too, is a reporter. Click grabs at his camera and shouts for him to get out.

“Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click yells toward the crowd. “I need some muscle over here!”

Afterward, Tai took the high road.

“A lot of hardworking journalists were blocked from doing their jobs — I just happened to be on video. I didn’t ask for notoriety,” he posted on Twitter, asking people to refocus on the issues that brought everyone together.

I am proud of Tai for standing up for himself, and his profession.

As for Click, her punishment from the university should be swift and severe.

The Department of Communication is not the School of Journalism, where I got my degree. But they teach the First Amendment in communications classes, too.

That one of the department’s professors is so willing to trample on a student’s First Amendment rights shows she has no business educating young people.

That she’s willing to use “muscle” shows she has no business being around young people.

A day of change at the University of Missouri ends with the reality that many people believe their rights are more important than the rights of others.

Shameful. Hypocritical.


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EXCLUSIVE: Bevin Late Several Times on Property Taxes, Records Show

NOTE: This story first appeared on June 19, 2015, on WAVE-TV. Following up on a tip, I revealed that Republican candidate for Kentucky governor Matt Bevin had been late to pay his property taxes. In a second story, I discovered that his business had also been a property tax delinquent. Bevin began publicly accusing me of working for his Democratic opponent.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) — Republican candidate for Kentucky governor Matt Bevin has been late to pay property taxes on land he owns in other states at least 10 times since 2002, documents indicate.

Local officials in Greenwood, Maine and Leesville, Louisiana provided the documents at the request of WAVE 3 News. Combined, they show Bevin paid more than $1,100 in interest and penalties to settle property tax bills.

Bevin disputed the numbers but did not provide an explanation for what the Maine and Louisiana officials provided.

“Do you really think that I don’t pay my property taxes?” Bevin asked a reporter Friday. “Send them (the documents) to us and I’ll follow up with you, absolutely.”

Bevin was late to pay taxes on his vacation home in Maine at least four times between 2002 and 2008, according to paperwork from Greenwood Town Manager Kim Sparks. Bevin paid $1,006.64 in interest and fees, the documents indicated. The interest and fees are all because of late payments, Sparks said in an email.

[RELATED: Documents on Matt Bevin’s Maine property taxes]

Records showed that Bevin had to pay more than $1,000 in late fees.

Records showed that Bevin had to pay more than $1,000 in late fees.

Bevin owns three parcels relating to his vacation home. Sparks provided information for one of the parcels and said she’d send a complete report next week because she was out of the office Friday.

Bevin first came under scrutiny for property tax payments during the 2014 U.S. Senate race, when it was revealed he once had a lien filed against the Maine vacation home. He settled the lien the following year, and his Senate campaign blamed it on a mistake by his new mortgage company.

Separate documents show Bevin was tardy in paying taxes on land he owns in Louisiana six times from 2004 to 2010. The late payments cost Bevin $99.60 in interest and penalties, said Stacy Lewis, the Leesville tax collector.

The parcel that Bevin owns is an empty lot, a representative for the local tax assessor’s office said.

[RELATED: Documents on Matt Bevin’s Louisiana property taxes]

Ben Hartman, a Bevin campaign spokesman, responded by attacking Bevin’s opponent, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, for not releasing a jobs plan.

“His campaign is desperately trying to distract voters from that fact, and Kentuckians deserve better,” Hartman said in a text message.

Hartman later said Bevin’s taxes are paid “in full.”

Conway’s campaign gave WAVE 3 News a list of properties Conway owns partially or outright. They include 25 percent of two condos in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; 25 percent of a property on Nolin Lake in Grayson County; four undeveloped parcels in Louisville’s Preston Commons; and his primary home in northeast Louisville.

“To the best of my knowledge, there are no late taxes,” said Daniel Kemp, a spokesman for Conway.

Bevin and Conway’s primary homes in Louisville have no delinquent taxes dating back to 2004, according to the Jefferson County Clerk’s office. The four undeveloped parcels that Conway owns also have no delinquencies.

Online records in Beaufort County, South Carolina show taxes on Conway’s condo properties have been paid in full since 2005.

A representative for the Grayson County Clerk said the Nolin Lake property has no tax delinquencies dating back to 1991.


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EXCLUSIVE: Recently-Defeated Mayor Gave City Loans to Herself, Others

NOTE: This story first appeared on Jan. 5, 2015, on WAVE-TV. A tip and multiple open records requests revealed shady dealings at city hall in one of Louisville’s suburbs, and a mayor less than excited to talk about it.

I went back to West Buechel a lot. I investigated the next mayor’s troubling police lieutenant hire, then why he hired his ex-wife and current girlfriend for city jobs, and later discovered women were accusing a city councilman of sexual harassment.

WEST BUECHEL, KY (WAVE) — Former West Buechel mayor Sharon Fowler loaned herself and two other officials money out of the city’s coffers.

Fowler said she later learned that the practice was “improper” and that, had she known at the time, she wouldn’t have authorized the loans.

Fowler lost her re-election bid in November to Rick Richards, who takes office despite pleading guilty to a felony drug charge in September. A court gave him diversion, meaning the criminal charge would go away if Richards stayed out of trouble.

Fowler loaned herself $700 and also provided Police Chief Gary Sharp with a $1,000 loan, according to documents obtained by WAVE 3 News through an open records request.

The records show Fowler paid the money back. Sharp said that he, too, had paid the money back over a one-year period.

Fowler said city money loaned to another former official was not paid back.

Fowler didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment, then declined to answer questions when confronted Dec. 30 outside City Hall. After leaving office, she answered questions about the loans in a phone interview.

“That’s on me,” Fowler said after saying the loans were improper. “I take responsibility for that.”

Richards, the new mayor, said he wouldn’t continue the practice.

“I don’t believe it’s legal — I’m pretty sure I’m correct on that — so absolutely not,” Richards said.

The documents also revealed Fowler made more than $400 in purchases on the Home Shopping Network and QVC using the city’s credit card. More than $150 in charges at Louisville-area restaurants showed up, as did spending in Las Vegas.

Fowler said the online purchases were Christmas gifts for city council members, city employees, and other adults in West Buechel. Meals at restaurants were for city employees who participated in workshops.

Fowler said she hadn’t been to Las Vegas and called it a fraudulent charge.

In response, Richards said he didn’t plan to give himself access to the city credit card.

Richards faced multiple felony drug charges in September after Metro Police officers served him with a search warrant and found oxycodone. Richards “flushed some of the pills down the toilet as detectives were making entry,” according to a police report.

“As soon as I saw what was in [the package], I panicked,” Richards explained. “I immediately flushed them.”

Richards said his mother sent him the pills via FedEx after he told her that insurance would no longer cover some medication he needed.

He admitted that it was a crime but said he is still fit to serve West Buechel as mayor.


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Late 2014’s Exclusive Stories

I spent most of 2014’s final six months covering Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race. During campaign season, I stayed on top of developments at City Hall in Louisville, worked on a handful of investigations, and covered breaking news stories ranging from a school shooting to an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge tragedy. Following are some stories I was first to report in the second half of the year.

Reality Check: I launched my franchise Reality Check in spring 2014, eventually fact-checking about two-dozen political ads from Kentucky’s U.S. Senate candidates in one of the most-watched campaigns in the country. When attacks seemed questionable, I spent hours digging into each claim and rendered a verdict of “True,” “False,” or a variety of ratings in between. We exposed several whoppers, culminating in the Election Eve story “Eight U.S. Senate claims you shouldn’t base your vote on.” The franchise provided a benefit to our viewers like no other station in Louisville.

Boarding Houses: Louisville Metro council members told me about deadbeat boarding house owners who were plaguing the city’s West End. I pulled off this investigation in less than a week, using a combination of undercover reporting and documents to reveal how landlords weren’t following the law. I’m often working my beat at City Hall, allowing me to develop relationships with sources that regularly pay off.

Longer Response Times: I broke the news when Louisville’s suburban fire districts decided to pull back from all but the most serious medical calls because of a lack of funding. The move drew a sharp warning from the Louisville Metro EMS director. I did two follow-up stories on the negotiations between suburban fire chiefs and Louisville’s mayor, but the issue remained unresolved at the end of 2014.

Mishandled 911 Calls: I discovered that poor training led to mishandled 911 calls in one local county. Supervisors weren’t providing new dispatchers with important information about medical emergency calls, leading to a botched job in one case where an 18-year-old man died. Officials enhanced their protocol and vowed that the mistakes wouldn’t happen again.

Councilman’s Bounced Checks: I’d been investigating Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson’s problems for weeks when a City Hall source told me Johnson hadn’t been paying the bill on his city-issued cell phone. Sure enough, I found out he’d written two checks that had bounced. Hours after I filed records requests, Johnson suddenly came up with the money. I followed him into an elevator to get answers.


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OPINION: The good, bad and ugly of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race


It’s been several days since Sen. Mitch McConnell trampled Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes and fulfilled a long-sought goal of becoming the leader of the U.S. Senate.

I had a front-row seat to a bruising race that cost $80 million, even launching a “Reality Check” franchise at WAVE-TV to fact-check millions of dollars worth of television ads. Along the way, I saw the race slipping away from Grimes in the campaign’s final weeks. I noticed the candidates relied on talking points and advertising instead of providing candid answers to policy questions. And I found the campaigns’ media staffers to be the most troubling of any campaign I’ve covered.

Why McConnell won, and Grimes lost

Everyone I talked with in the week before Election Day — Republicans, Democrats, and journalists — predicted a McConnell victory. No one expected him to win by 15 points.

I was at the McConnell event that night, and a colleague reported strange news back to me from the Grimes event. The party was outside on a chilly Kentucky November day. There was no audio box for broadcast outlets until the last moment. The riser required some people to shoot video through tree branches. Late-arriving donors meant the event looked sparsely attended on TV. It was an odd ending to a choreographed campaign.

How the lopsided loss happened has been the topic of much discussion, and four reasons have emerged: midterm elections tend to go against presidents in their final term (in this case, benefiting Republicans), President Obama is deeply unpopular in Kentucky, McConnell and his allies flooded the airwaves with advertising, and the Grimes campaign made inexperienced mistakes.

The president’s approval rating hovers around 30 percent in Kentucky polls. McConnell and his third-party allies spent tens of millions of dollars twisting any shred of a Grimes-Obama connection into a near love affair between the two.

The Grimes campaign failed to introduce Grimes to voters while McConnell was busy fighting off a GOP primary challenger. Grimes ran few ads before the primary and, when I asked the candidate in May whether she should’ve done more, she dismissed the notion. But the lack of early work allowed McConnell to define Grimes as an Obama supporter, using that point to slowly build a lead.

Further, the Grimes campaign was ineffective at handling bad press, such as when the candidate repeatedly refused to answer whether she had voted for Obama.

How would you vote on the issues?

Both candidates went long stretches of the campaign where they seemingly forgot that voters might want to hear how they would vote on the issues.

In the last full week of the race, Grimes held three separate events in Louisville without taking a single question from reporters. McConnell appeared at a conservative event and slipped out the back, before taking questions at a rally later in the week.

Prior to that, even former President Bill Clinton — a man who hasn’t held office in 13 years — took more questions (two, at a Grimes event) than did the Senate candidates themselves.

Instead, McConnell and especially Grimes relied on talking points.

McConnell claimed that he wasn’t “a scientist” so he couldn’t say whether he believed in climate change. He said Kentucky’s Kynect health insurance portal was just a website. Grimes had a handful of talking points to answer nearly every question at a well-publicized Kentucky Farm Bureau forum, then strangely began calling herself a “Kentucky filly” in the campaign’s final weeks.

I launched a “Reality Check” franchise at WAVE-TV to fact-check campaign ads and, not surprisingly, tens of millions of dollars gets you a lot of false and misleading claims. Viewers got the facts during our newscasts, then got flooded with the problematic ads during commercial breaks.

Frustrating campaign staffers

Both campaigns deserve blame for how they worked with journalists. From the McConnell campaign, I once emailed two questions and got back the three words, “Are you serious?”

Over at the Grimes campaign, a staffer told assembled reporters that Grimes would take no questions after a late October event — after a different staffer told me she would earlier in the night. I questioned it, and the staffer told me I “didn’t come to enough of our events.”

Later in the week, a staffer threatened to pull press credentials when another reporter and I waited to ask President Clinton a question or two. Another time, we were kept corralled on the media risers while 4,500 Grimes supporters were allowed to leave the venue.

I’ve covered three U.S. Senate races in three states now. Tense campaign-reporter relations are part of the game. But the repeated nature of the interactions in this race was something new.

I often stood up for my rights, and I credit other reporters who did so even more vigorously than I did.

We’ve got a competitive 2015 governor’s race next year in Kentucky. Let’s all hope some things change.


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OPINION: Fancy Farm entertains a newcomer
The pavilion crowd was evenly divided.

The pavilion crowd was evenly divided.

This year was my first visit to the annual Fancy Farm Picnic — great timing, huh? — and it’s time to reflect on melt-in-your-mouth barbeque, friendly people, and the most interesting political event of my career.

This year’s picnic drew a record crowd, buoyed by one of the country’s hottest U.S. Senate races between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Grimes. Only twice in the past year have McConnell and Grimes stood on the same stage together, and both times have been in the 550-person town of Fancy Farm, Ky.

You could go a long time without meeting a friendlier person than Mark Wilson, who chairs the political speaking for the church that organizes the event. In fact, everyone from Western Kentucky was incredibly nice to this visiting reporter.

No doubt the 2014 picnic was important to politicians, but it was most remarkable to me as a dying form of democracy. Between YouTube ads and email blasts to supporters —and without a debate scheduled in the race — Fancy Farm has provided voters with their only opportunities to see McConnell and Grimes on a neutral playing field.

Grimes delivered an eight-minute speech that was undoubtedly rehearsed — it almost exactly covered the allotted time — but her one-line jabs played well to the crowd and on TV.

Alison Grimes waves to supporters in Fancy Farm

Alison Grimes waves to supporters in Fancy Farm.

Perhaps the best part for Grimes was that it was a mistake-free performance. The candidate has made several blunders recently in question-and-answer sessions with reporters, and the Fancy Farm speech was a positive moment as President Bill Clinton heads to Kentucky this week to campaign with her.

McConnell was not able to match Grimes’ laugh-producing lines. Then again, the senator had very little to gain at Fancy Farm. Only a gaffe would move the needle on voters’ opinions of McConnell, and he successfully avoided that. Instead, he stuck with his main campaign strategy, tying Grimes with an unpopular President Barack Obama.

Watch the story: McConnell, Grimes use Fancy Farm to jab each other

Sen. Rand Paul provided the most spirited endorsement of McConnell that I’ve seen so far in the campaign. He began, as he had promised at breakfast Saturday morning, with an anti-Grimes poem. It was the riskiest move of the day, and Paul played it well. (Although, as WAVE-TV photojournalist Doug Druschke remarked, it was hard to tell when the poem ended, except that Paul stopped rhyming.)

I knew people weren’t lying to me about Fancy Farm’s theater when Gov. Steve Beshear, batting leadoff, began his speech by taking a photo “selfie” with McConnell. He told the crowd he needed something to remember McConnell with after voters retired the senator. Democratic supporters roared.

Sen. Mitch McConnell shakes hands with supporters.

Sen. Mitch McConnell shakes hands with supporters before the event.

There was also a long-shot congressional candidate who referenced God more often than his own policy positions, a fake candidate who promises to listen to anyone who gives him money, and enough characters in the crowd to provide me with stories for days.

And now, finally, I get back around to the barbeque! Plenty of people come to Fancy Farm for the food, not the politics. My two  barbeque pork sandwiches were so good they didn’t need any sauce — which was great, because I needed to keep my shirt sauce-free for later TV live shots.

As I was eating the second sandwich during some down-time, I realized this may be the final time we see McConnell and Grimes appear on the same stage before the Nov. 4 election. With both sides unable to agree on debate terms, an awkward handshake on the Fancy Farm stage may be all we get.

Here’s to hoping they will debate.

And here’s to hoping there will be barbeque.


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OPINION: Standing up for the public’s right to know

On Wednesday, a good thing happened for journalism.

As we faced being kicked out of former state Rep. John Arnold’s ethics hearing, the Frankfort press corps asked the chairman of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission to cite the specific exemption to the federal open meetings law that allowed him to close the meeting. When he couldn’t provide one, we didn’t leave. And, when the commission came up with an exemption, all 11 media outlets formally protested the decision.

The Ethics Commission had, in many eyes, botched the case against Arnold at a previous meeting in April. Three legislative staffers accused Arnold of sexually harassing them and, while Arnold quickly resigned, the administrative case against him continued.

The Frankfort press corps gathers in the hall after the Legislative Ethics Commission kicked us out. (Photo credit: Tom Loftus)

The Frankfort press corps gathers in the hall after the Ethics Commission kicked us out. (Photo credit: Tom Loftus)

Three Ethics Commission members didn’t showing up for the original hearing and, with one seat already vacant, it left a bare minimum of five members to decide the Arnold case. The commission voted 4-1 to find him guilty of violating the legislature’s ethics code, but didn’t have the five votes necessary to punish him.

Public outcry was swift, with newspaper editorial pages across the state condemning the absent commission members.

Wednesday, Chairman George Troutman asserted that the commission had never closed the Arnold case and was authorized to reconsider it. Seven members — including the three who had missed the April meeting — showed up to this second meeting. Two of the three previously absent members were the most vocal about wanting to reconsider the case.

But Arnold’s attorney, Steve Downey, objected. Downey said the case was over after the April decision, and retrying Arnold wasn’t fair.

After two hours of discussion, the commission voted to enter closed session to discuss whether to re-hear the case. Members of the Frankfort press corps, including me, initially went into the hallway. But, led by two fellow press corps members and competitors, Tom Loftus of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader, we returned to ask for the open meetings law exemption that allowed the commission to close the meeting.

Former state Rep. John Arnold, now accused of sexual harassment.

Former state Rep. John Arnold, now accused of sexual harassment.

Troutman couldn’t provide one, and reporters sat back down. In the corner of the room, commission staff went digging into the Kentucky Revised Statutes. Troutman came back and cited KRS 61.810(j), which allows public or quasi-public bodies to close meetings in certain circumstances. Brammer stood to formally protest the decision, and all 10 other outlets — including me, on behalf of WAVE-TV — followed.

Then, we were kicked out into the hall for a second time. At least this time, they had provided a legal basis for doing it.

Ultimately, we barely had enough time to read the KRS exemption. Commission members reopened the meeting about 10 minutes later and then voted unanimously to reconsider the Arnold case.

After four hours of testimony and arguments, members voted 5-1 (one member left before the vote) to find Arnold guilty on three charges of ethics violations. They imposed a $1,000 fine for each charge and a public reprimand.

While the potential open meetings violation had no role in the case’s outcome — and ultimately only made my web copy, not my  TV story of the day’s events — it’s important to call out public officials when they make mistakes regarding open meetings.

If a panel including a judge, a lawyer, two former state lawmakers, and business leaders didn’t know the law, does your local town board? The public has a right to know what their elected and appointed officials are doing — that’s why the law exists.

It should be taken seriously, by officials and by journalists.


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EXCLUSIVE: TARC spends thousands on security officers after deadly stabbing

NOTE: The stories first aired on April 10, 2014, and April 25, 2014, on WAVE-TV. I broke this major local story after getting a tip from sources on my City Hall beat that Louisville’s bus agency was going to hire off-duty officers after a deadly stabbing. I later filed a records request to find out how much the reaction was costing taxpayers.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Louisville’s bus agency spent more than $22,000 to hire off-duty police officers in the four weeks after a deadly stabbing aboard a city bus.

At least 13 Metro Police officers have expressed interest in working for TARC on a part-time basis, according to records obtained by WAVE 3 News under Kentucky’s open records law.

TARC administrators earlier this month decided to hire armed, uniformed off-duty police officers to ride its buses on high-priority routes. The extra security has cost at least $22,460, and the spending continues.

“We will continually be monitoring and evaluating security and will spend to the level appropriate within budget restrictions,” said Kay Stewart, a TARC spokeswoman.

The money is coming out of the bus agency’s operating budget for now, Stewart said.

On March 16, a teenager was stabbed while riding a bus on Broadway. The incident sparked mob violence downtown, and Metro officials have responded by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on security cameras, police overtime and, most recently, off-duty officers on city buses.

tarc stabbing2The bus security cost is a high number, but it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to the stabbing, said Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, a Republican who’s on the budget committee.

“What we have to do to ensure safety should not cost $22,000 a month, but we’ll see,” Downard said. “(The violence) needed an immediate reaction and an immediate response – I would support (the spending).”

TARC is paying the off-duty officers $25 an hour for the work.

The cost of the extra security will come down over the next several weeks, council members predicted.

“As they work through which buses need to have the officers on board, I’m sure those numbers will adjust,” said Councilman David James, a Democrat who rode TARC buses twice after the violence to check security for himself.

The council wouldn’t “run away from” providing a budget increase to the bus agency for extra security, James said.

Original story: TARC to hire armed, off-duty police officers for bus security


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Session Wrap: Covering My Third State Capitol

The Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort in March 2014.

Kentucky’s 2014 legislative session finished this week and, with it, I’m heading back to Louisville for the rest of the year.

It was my sixth spring covering a legislature, including three in Missouri, two in Wisconsin, and now one in Kentucky. Each state’s legislature — and Capitol — has its differences and similarities.

This year’s session began with a literal bang, as Pikeville Rep. Leslie Combs accidentally shot her gun in her Capitol Annex office. No one was injured, but it dominated the headlines for a couple days. The session also ended chaotically, but in a more traditional sense, with lawmakers unsuccessfully scrambling to finish legislation before the midnight deadline on April 15.

For me, it was an opportunity to do what I do best, and what I enjoy the most.

This was also the first time ever that I had to manage my own political coverage schedule. In Missouri, I took direction and advice from my boss and mentor, KMOX-AM’s Phill Brooks. In Wisconsin, I learned from one of the country’s best local TV political reporters, Jessica Arp, and helped out regularly during perhaps the state’s most politically charged era.

Gov. Steve Beshear answers questions from the Frankfort press corps.

Gov. Steve Beshear answers questions from the Frankfort press corps.

This year, it was time to put that experience to use. Before the session, I drafted a list of the most controversial bills for the session. (I later had to add a few priorities to the list, as events dictated.) Every night, I put together a schedule for the next day by looking at the lengthy list of committee meetings, sifted through the newly filed bills, and kept my ears open for big-name politicians holding events in the Capitol.

I made the hour-long drive to Frankfort on about 40 of the session’s 60 days (some Mondays and most Fridays featured little news) and filed more than 100 stories as a one-man-band. My record was five stories in one day, but I could only manage that output when photographers came to assist.

There were several late nights in the Capitol — none later than 2:15 a.m. on the legislature’s final day — and over the weeks, I took in not only the beauty of the building, but of the political processes under its dome.

Kentucky’s Capitol has the prettiest interior, with views from all floors of the entire length of the building. It’s also by far the smallest Capitol I’ve covered — so small that legislative offices are in the Annex across the street. On the downside, the House and Senate chambers aren’t as ornate as in the other two states.

Missouri has the best-manicured grounds. I’ve heard several times the story of how the state over-taxed Missourians during construction of the new Capitol in the early 1900s, and decided to pour the extra money into statues and artwork instead of returning it to the people. But inside, the third and fourth floor hallways don’t overlook the rest of the building, as in Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has by far the best-looking Capitol from the outside of the three I’ve covered — and perhaps in the entire country. It also stands apart in that it has four wings, instead of two. This leads to the inside being quite confusing to navigate.

Politically, nothing in Missouri or Kentucky compares to the “all politics, all the time” mentality of 2011-2012 in Wisconsin, where I covered the historical recall of Gov. Scott Walker and the polarization of the state legislature. Republicans controlled Wisconsin’s government in Wisconsin, while Missouri and Kentucky have divided government between the two parties. That means less gets done in the latter two states — but also means that the most-controversial legislation dies.

From my own scheduling perspective, Kentucky has the shortest session, at 60 days in even years and just 30 days in the odd. That means I won’t be back in Frankfort full-time until January — unless Gov. Steve Beshear calls lawmakers back into special session.


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Inside the Spin Room at a GOP debate

If you’re like most people I talk to as a political reporter, you think the Republican and Democratic debates are pretty much the only opportunities we have in the 2016 cycle to observe the candidates in a setting that their campaigns haven’t choreographed to the ‘T.’

Reporters line up to talk with the GOP frontrunners.

Reporters line up to talk with the GOP frontrunners.

When the debates end, the choreographing returns. Such is the case in the spin room, a post-game arena where candidates and their surrogates go to convince reporters of a successful debate performance.

I saw this chaotic place first-hand while covering the fourth GOP debate, held at the Milwaukee Theatre in November, for WITI-TV. (I’ll see it again after February’s Democratic debate, which will also be in Milwaukee.)

I had heard a lot about what the spin room would be like. Hundreds of reporters, dozens of TV cameras, a free-for-all for the best access to candidates. Some candidates stick to the ropeline, while others wade into the crowd.

Luckily, I thought, we’d get a warm-up of sorts with the undercard candidates — whose poll numbers were so low that they didn’t make the main debate.

When the undercard debate — an event dominated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal attacking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — ended, the spin room energy began.

Despite his low poll numbers, Bobby Jindal was the center of attention.

Despite his low poll numbers, Bobby Jindal was the center of attention.

Jindal was first to enter the room and, despite poor poll numbers that contributed to his dropping out of the race not long after, reporters crowded around. Photographers climbed on stepladders and elbowed for position behind us.

Why had Jindal gone on the offensive? Is Christie a real conservative? Does Jindal think of himself as still having a chance at victory?

I had a good but not great position (see photo). Casting my microphone with my outstretched arm, I got around someone’s shoulder and near Jindal’s chin.

A spin room success for a reporter, I learned.

Christie didn’t appear in person, dispatching a campaign manager instead.

By the time the main debate candidates appeared two hours later, the number of reporters had doubled. This included representatives from international media outlets and Entertainment Tonight.

Mike Huckabee's sign-holder in the back hallway.

Mike Huckabee’s sign-holder in the back hallway.

It was some people’s job to hold a vertical sign near each candidate, announcing their presence to journalists across the crowded room.

Some candidates were invited up to do a post-debate interview on FOX Business Network, which had hosted the debate. Most took time to answer questions via satellite on other networks.

Some candidates, like Ben Carson, waded into the crowd. Others, like Rand Paul, spoke briefly at the ropeline before leaving. Ted Cruz only did network interviews. Marco Rubio didn’t appear in the spin room.

Trump worked the ropeline like a red carpet — answering a question, walking a few feet, answering another, all with his wife by his side.

The debate was “elegant,” he told us. Trump had mostly taken the night off from jabbing at his rivals.

When my friend Jessica Arp of WISC-TV asked him about being booed by the audience during the debate, Trump replied, “It’s only in your mind.”

If you parsed through about 95 percent of what was said in the spin room, you could figure out how a candidate thought he or she did that night. Candidates who stayed a long time either had a lot to talk about or felt the need to explain their performance. Candidates who left quickly or didn’t come at all were either frustrated or wanted to let their performance stand on its own.

There were a few minor controversies stirred up in the spin room that night — for one, Carson saying that he wouldn’t hypothetically abort a baby Adolf Hitler — but no groundbreaking news.

I doubt many journalists were swayed by the attempts at spin.

Yet it was fun, for the night, to be part of the choreographed show.


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OPINION: Missouri campus protesters demand their own rights, trample on others’

UPDATES: In late January — more than two months after the incident — the University of Missouri finally suspended Melissa Click pending an investigation, but has still not fired her. That same week, local prosecutors charged her with third-degree assault, for which she was ordered to complete community service and stay out of trouble. She had previously issued an apology for her actions. The other university staffer in the video, Janna Basler, has been “relieved of her duties” as Director of Greek Life for her shameful actions.

In a day of change, the University of Missouri System president and MU chancellor have resigned their positions after weeks of unrest at the place where I spent four years of my life.

Protesters, angry over what they saw as a slow response from university leaders to racial incidents on campus in recent weeks, demanded that the two men resign or be fired. Many were also upset over administrators’ decision to terminate health benefits for graduate assistants.

One graduate student began an eight-day hunger strike. In likely the tipping point, the Missouri Tigers football team refused to practice or play until the university leaders were gone.

A protest group doesn't want journalists to document its activities in a public space.

A protest group doesn’t want journalists to document its activities in a public space.

If you’re looking for commentary on the tension or the ousters, look elsewhere. A different embarrassment to the University of Missouri is what caught my attention Monday:

MU has apparently become a place where professors believe it’s acceptable to use “muscle” to trample on people’s rights.

One of the protest groups, which calls itself “Concerned Student 1950,” has been demonstrating on the MU campus Quadrangle. Some had set up a tent city.

The Quad is perhaps the second-most public gathering place in the state of Missouri — only the statehouse in Jefferson City could top it. Yet, Concerned Student 1950 wanted to keep journalists from documenting their protest at this most public of spaces.

In other words, the people exercising their own First Amendment rights wanted to restrict the First Amendment rights of others.

Shameful. Hypocritical.

“We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship and sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” the group posted on Twitter.

As if they were constructing a fence, they posted signs on the Quad that read “No Media. Safe Space.”

This, of course, did not stop journalists from covering the most newsworthy event on the Missouri campus in years — perhaps since the 1970 Vietnam War protest.

Melissa Click (right), seen in a video telling journalists to leave a public space.

Melissa Click (right), seen in a video telling journalists to leave a public space.

It did, unfortunately and unacceptably, lead to a clash between journalists exercising their rights and protesters willing to trample on them.

Take, for example, Melissa Click.

Click is an assistant professor within the Department of Communications. She’s currently researching “50 Shades of Grey readers” and “the impact of social media on fans’ relationship with Lady Gaga,” according to her bio.

Click has also become an advocate for those protesting on MU’s campus. Via her Facebook page, she asked for advice on getting the students’ concerns “into the national media.”

Which made this professor’s interaction with Tim Tai even worse.

Tai is a student photographer. Monday, as he attempted to take photos of the protest on the Quad, a group of protesters began pushing him back. Another person, Mark Schierbecker, recorded the incident on video.

Click shouts at Tai. Another woman, reported to be a university employee in the Office of Greek Life, pushes him. Fellow students belittle him, and his job.

Tai unsuccessfully tries explaining to those surrounding him that he has the same right to be there and document the protest.

Later, the person documenting Tai’s situation goes up to Click and says he, too, is a reporter. Click grabs at his camera and shouts for him to get out.

“Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” Click yells toward the crowd. “I need some muscle over here!”

Afterward, Tai took the high road.

“A lot of hardworking journalists were blocked from doing their jobs — I just happened to be on video. I didn’t ask for notoriety,” he posted on Twitter, asking people to refocus on the issues that brought everyone together.

I am proud of Tai for standing up for himself, and his profession.

As for Click, her punishment from the university should be swift and severe.

The Department of Communication is not the School of Journalism, where I got my degree. But they teach the First Amendment in communications classes, too.

That one of the department’s professors is so willing to trample on a student’s First Amendment rights shows she has no business educating young people.

That she’s willing to use “muscle” shows she has no business being around young people.

A day of change at the University of Missouri ends with the reality that many people believe their rights are more important than the rights of others.

Shameful. Hypocritical.


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EXCLUSIVE: Bevin Late Several Times on Property Taxes, Records Show

NOTE: This story first appeared on June 19, 2015, on WAVE-TV. Following up on a tip, I revealed that Republican candidate for Kentucky governor Matt Bevin had been late to pay his property taxes. In a second story, I discovered that his business had also been a property tax delinquent. Bevin began publicly accusing me of working for his Democratic opponent.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) — Republican candidate for Kentucky governor Matt Bevin has been late to pay property taxes on land he owns in other states at least 10 times since 2002, documents indicate.

Local officials in Greenwood, Maine and Leesville, Louisiana provided the documents at the request of WAVE 3 News. Combined, they show Bevin paid more than $1,100 in interest and penalties to settle property tax bills.

Bevin disputed the numbers but did not provide an explanation for what the Maine and Louisiana officials provided.

“Do you really think that I don’t pay my property taxes?” Bevin asked a reporter Friday. “Send them (the documents) to us and I’ll follow up with you, absolutely.”

Bevin was late to pay taxes on his vacation home in Maine at least four times between 2002 and 2008, according to paperwork from Greenwood Town Manager Kim Sparks. Bevin paid $1,006.64 in interest and fees, the documents indicated. The interest and fees are all because of late payments, Sparks said in an email.

[RELATED: Documents on Matt Bevin’s Maine property taxes]

Records showed that Bevin had to pay more than $1,000 in late fees.

Records showed that Bevin had to pay more than $1,000 in late fees.

Bevin owns three parcels relating to his vacation home. Sparks provided information for one of the parcels and said she’d send a complete report next week because she was out of the office Friday.

Bevin first came under scrutiny for property tax payments during the 2014 U.S. Senate race, when it was revealed he once had a lien filed against the Maine vacation home. He settled the lien the following year, and his Senate campaign blamed it on a mistake by his new mortgage company.

Separate documents show Bevin was tardy in paying taxes on land he owns in Louisiana six times from 2004 to 2010. The late payments cost Bevin $99.60 in interest and penalties, said Stacy Lewis, the Leesville tax collector.

The parcel that Bevin owns is an empty lot, a representative for the local tax assessor’s office said.

[RELATED: Documents on Matt Bevin’s Louisiana property taxes]

Ben Hartman, a Bevin campaign spokesman, responded by attacking Bevin’s opponent, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, for not releasing a jobs plan.

“His campaign is desperately trying to distract voters from that fact, and Kentuckians deserve better,” Hartman said in a text message.

Hartman later said Bevin’s taxes are paid “in full.”

Conway’s campaign gave WAVE 3 News a list of properties Conway owns partially or outright. They include 25 percent of two condos in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; 25 percent of a property on Nolin Lake in Grayson County; four undeveloped parcels in Louisville’s Preston Commons; and his primary home in northeast Louisville.

“To the best of my knowledge, there are no late taxes,” said Daniel Kemp, a spokesman for Conway.

Bevin and Conway’s primary homes in Louisville have no delinquent taxes dating back to 2004, according to the Jefferson County Clerk’s office. The four undeveloped parcels that Conway owns also have no delinquencies.

Online records in Beaufort County, South Carolina show taxes on Conway’s condo properties have been paid in full since 2005.

A representative for the Grayson County Clerk said the Nolin Lake property has no tax delinquencies dating back to 1991.


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EXCLUSIVE: Recently-Defeated Mayor Gave City Loans to Herself, Others

NOTE: This story first appeared on Jan. 5, 2015, on WAVE-TV. A tip and multiple open records requests revealed shady dealings at city hall in one of Louisville’s suburbs, and a mayor less than excited to talk about it.

I went back to West Buechel a lot. I investigated the next mayor’s troubling police lieutenant hire, then why he hired his ex-wife and current girlfriend for city jobs, and later discovered women were accusing a city councilman of sexual harassment.

WEST BUECHEL, KY (WAVE) — Former West Buechel mayor Sharon Fowler loaned herself and two other officials money out of the city’s coffers.

Fowler said she later learned that the practice was “improper” and that, had she known at the time, she wouldn’t have authorized the loans.

Fowler lost her re-election bid in November to Rick Richards, who takes office despite pleading guilty to a felony drug charge in September. A court gave him diversion, meaning the criminal charge would go away if Richards stayed out of trouble.

Fowler loaned herself $700 and also provided Police Chief Gary Sharp with a $1,000 loan, according to documents obtained by WAVE 3 News through an open records request.

The records show Fowler paid the money back. Sharp said that he, too, had paid the money back over a one-year period.

Fowler said city money loaned to another former official was not paid back.

Fowler didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment, then declined to answer questions when confronted Dec. 30 outside City Hall. After leaving office, she answered questions about the loans in a phone interview.

“That’s on me,” Fowler said after saying the loans were improper. “I take responsibility for that.”

Richards, the new mayor, said he wouldn’t continue the practice.

“I don’t believe it’s legal — I’m pretty sure I’m correct on that — so absolutely not,” Richards said.

The documents also revealed Fowler made more than $400 in purchases on the Home Shopping Network and QVC using the city’s credit card. More than $150 in charges at Louisville-area restaurants showed up, as did spending in Las Vegas.

Fowler said the online purchases were Christmas gifts for city council members, city employees, and other adults in West Buechel. Meals at restaurants were for city employees who participated in workshops.

Fowler said she hadn’t been to Las Vegas and called it a fraudulent charge.

In response, Richards said he didn’t plan to give himself access to the city credit card.

Richards faced multiple felony drug charges in September after Metro Police officers served him with a search warrant and found oxycodone. Richards “flushed some of the pills down the toilet as detectives were making entry,” according to a police report.

“As soon as I saw what was in [the package], I panicked,” Richards explained. “I immediately flushed them.”

Richards said his mother sent him the pills via FedEx after he told her that insurance would no longer cover some medication he needed.

He admitted that it was a crime but said he is still fit to serve West Buechel as mayor.


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Late 2014’s Exclusive Stories

I spent most of 2014’s final six months covering Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race. During campaign season, I stayed on top of developments at City Hall in Louisville, worked on a handful of investigations, and covered breaking news stories ranging from a school shooting to an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge tragedy. Following are some stories I was first to report in the second half of the year.

Reality Check: I launched my franchise Reality Check in spring 2014, eventually fact-checking about two-dozen political ads from Kentucky’s U.S. Senate candidates in one of the most-watched campaigns in the country. When attacks seemed questionable, I spent hours digging into each claim and rendered a verdict of “True,” “False,” or a variety of ratings in between. We exposed several whoppers, culminating in the Election Eve story “Eight U.S. Senate claims you shouldn’t base your vote on.” The franchise provided a benefit to our viewers like no other station in Louisville.

Boarding Houses: Louisville Metro council members told me about deadbeat boarding house owners who were plaguing the city’s West End. I pulled off this investigation in less than a week, using a combination of undercover reporting and documents to reveal how landlords weren’t following the law. I’m often working my beat at City Hall, allowing me to develop relationships with sources that regularly pay off.

Longer Response Times: I broke the news when Louisville’s suburban fire districts decided to pull back from all but the most serious medical calls because of a lack of funding. The move drew a sharp warning from the Louisville Metro EMS director. I did two follow-up stories on the negotiations between suburban fire chiefs and Louisville’s mayor, but the issue remained unresolved at the end of 2014.

Mishandled 911 Calls: I discovered that poor training led to mishandled 911 calls in one local county. Supervisors weren’t providing new dispatchers with important information about medical emergency calls, leading to a botched job in one case where an 18-year-old man died. Officials enhanced their protocol and vowed that the mistakes wouldn’t happen again.

Councilman’s Bounced Checks: I’d been investigating Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson’s problems for weeks when a City Hall source told me Johnson hadn’t been paying the bill on his city-issued cell phone. Sure enough, I found out he’d written two checks that had bounced. Hours after I filed records requests, Johnson suddenly came up with the money. I followed him into an elevator to get answers.


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OPINION: The good, bad and ugly of Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race


It’s been several days since Sen. Mitch McConnell trampled Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes and fulfilled a long-sought goal of becoming the leader of the U.S. Senate.

I had a front-row seat to a bruising race that cost $80 million, even launching a “Reality Check” franchise at WAVE-TV to fact-check millions of dollars worth of television ads. Along the way, I saw the race slipping away from Grimes in the campaign’s final weeks. I noticed the candidates relied on talking points and advertising instead of providing candid answers to policy questions. And I found the campaigns’ media staffers to be the most troubling of any campaign I’ve covered.

Why McConnell won, and Grimes lost

Everyone I talked with in the week before Election Day — Republicans, Democrats, and journalists — predicted a McConnell victory. No one expected him to win by 15 points.

I was at the McConnell event that night, and a colleague reported strange news back to me from the Grimes event. The party was outside on a chilly Kentucky November day. There was no audio box for broadcast outlets until the last moment. The riser required some people to shoot video through tree branches. Late-arriving donors meant the event looked sparsely attended on TV. It was an odd ending to a choreographed campaign.

How the lopsided loss happened has been the topic of much discussion, and four reasons have emerged: midterm elections tend to go against presidents in their final term (in this case, benefiting Republicans), President Obama is deeply unpopular in Kentucky, McConnell and his allies flooded the airwaves with advertising, and the Grimes campaign made inexperienced mistakes.

The president’s approval rating hovers around 30 percent in Kentucky polls. McConnell and his third-party allies spent tens of millions of dollars twisting any shred of a Grimes-Obama connection into a near love affair between the two.

The Grimes campaign failed to introduce Grimes to voters while McConnell was busy fighting off a GOP primary challenger. Grimes ran few ads before the primary and, when I asked the candidate in May whether she should’ve done more, she dismissed the notion. But the lack of early work allowed McConnell to define Grimes as an Obama supporter, using that point to slowly build a lead.

Further, the Grimes campaign was ineffective at handling bad press, such as when the candidate repeatedly refused to answer whether she had voted for Obama.

How would you vote on the issues?

Both candidates went long stretches of the campaign where they seemingly forgot that voters might want to hear how they would vote on the issues.

In the last full week of the race, Grimes held three separate events in Louisville without taking a single question from reporters. McConnell appeared at a conservative event and slipped out the back, before taking questions at a rally later in the week.

Prior to that, even former President Bill Clinton — a man who hasn’t held office in 13 years — took more questions (two, at a Grimes event) than did the Senate candidates themselves.

Instead, McConnell and especially Grimes relied on talking points.

McConnell claimed that he wasn’t “a scientist” so he couldn’t say whether he believed in climate change. He said Kentucky’s Kynect health insurance portal was just a website. Grimes had a handful of talking points to answer nearly every question at a well-publicized Kentucky Farm Bureau forum, then strangely began calling herself a “Kentucky filly” in the campaign’s final weeks.

I launched a “Reality Check” franchise at WAVE-TV to fact-check campaign ads and, not surprisingly, tens of millions of dollars gets you a lot of false and misleading claims. Viewers got the facts during our newscasts, then got flooded with the problematic ads during commercial breaks.

Frustrating campaign staffers

Both campaigns deserve blame for how they worked with journalists. From the McConnell campaign, I once emailed two questions and got back the three words, “Are you serious?”

Over at the Grimes campaign, a staffer told assembled reporters that Grimes would take no questions after a late October event — after a different staffer told me she would earlier in the night. I questioned it, and the staffer told me I “didn’t come to enough of our events.”

Later in the week, a staffer threatened to pull press credentials when another reporter and I waited to ask President Clinton a question or two. Another time, we were kept corralled on the media risers while 4,500 Grimes supporters were allowed to leave the venue.

I’ve covered three U.S. Senate races in three states now. Tense campaign-reporter relations are part of the game. But the repeated nature of the interactions in this race was something new.

I often stood up for my rights, and I credit other reporters who did so even more vigorously than I did.

We’ve got a competitive 2015 governor’s race next year in Kentucky. Let’s all hope some things change.


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OPINION: Fancy Farm entertains a newcomer
The pavilion crowd was evenly divided.

The pavilion crowd was evenly divided.

This year was my first visit to the annual Fancy Farm Picnic — great timing, huh? — and it’s time to reflect on melt-in-your-mouth barbeque, friendly people, and the most interesting political event of my career.

This year’s picnic drew a record crowd, buoyed by one of the country’s hottest U.S. Senate races between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Grimes. Only twice in the past year have McConnell and Grimes stood on the same stage together, and both times have been in the 550-person town of Fancy Farm, Ky.

You could go a long time without meeting a friendlier person than Mark Wilson, who chairs the political speaking for the church that organizes the event. In fact, everyone from Western Kentucky was incredibly nice to this visiting reporter.

No doubt the 2014 picnic was important to politicians, but it was most remarkable to me as a dying form of democracy. Between YouTube ads and email blasts to supporters —and without a debate scheduled in the race — Fancy Farm has provided voters with their only opportunities to see McConnell and Grimes on a neutral playing field.

Grimes delivered an eight-minute speech that was undoubtedly rehearsed — it almost exactly covered the allotted time — but her one-line jabs played well to the crowd and on TV.

Alison Grimes waves to supporters in Fancy Farm

Alison Grimes waves to supporters in Fancy Farm.

Perhaps the best part for Grimes was that it was a mistake-free performance. The candidate has made several blunders recently in question-and-answer sessions with reporters, and the Fancy Farm speech was a positive moment as President Bill Clinton heads to Kentucky this week to campaign with her.

McConnell was not able to match Grimes’ laugh-producing lines. Then again, the senator had very little to gain at Fancy Farm. Only a gaffe would move the needle on voters’ opinions of McConnell, and he successfully avoided that. Instead, he stuck with his main campaign strategy, tying Grimes with an unpopular President Barack Obama.

Watch the story: McConnell, Grimes use Fancy Farm to jab each other

Sen. Rand Paul provided the most spirited endorsement of McConnell that I’ve seen so far in the campaign. He began, as he had promised at breakfast Saturday morning, with an anti-Grimes poem. It was the riskiest move of the day, and Paul played it well. (Although, as WAVE-TV photojournalist Doug Druschke remarked, it was hard to tell when the poem ended, except that Paul stopped rhyming.)

I knew people weren’t lying to me about Fancy Farm’s theater when Gov. Steve Beshear, batting leadoff, began his speech by taking a photo “selfie” with McConnell. He told the crowd he needed something to remember McConnell with after voters retired the senator. Democratic supporters roared.

Sen. Mitch McConnell shakes hands with supporters.

Sen. Mitch McConnell shakes hands with supporters before the event.

There was also a long-shot congressional candidate who referenced God more often than his own policy positions, a fake candidate who promises to listen to anyone who gives him money, and enough characters in the crowd to provide me with stories for days.

And now, finally, I get back around to the barbeque! Plenty of people come to Fancy Farm for the food, not the politics. My two  barbeque pork sandwiches were so good they didn’t need any sauce — which was great, because I needed to keep my shirt sauce-free for later TV live shots.

As I was eating the second sandwich during some down-time, I realized this may be the final time we see McConnell and Grimes appear on the same stage before the Nov. 4 election. With both sides unable to agree on debate terms, an awkward handshake on the Fancy Farm stage may be all we get.

Here’s to hoping they will debate.

And here’s to hoping there will be barbeque.


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OPINION: Standing up for the public’s right to know

On Wednesday, a good thing happened for journalism.

As we faced being kicked out of former state Rep. John Arnold’s ethics hearing, the Frankfort press corps asked the chairman of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission to cite the specific exemption to the federal open meetings law that allowed him to close the meeting. When he couldn’t provide one, we didn’t leave. And, when the commission came up with an exemption, all 11 media outlets formally protested the decision.

The Ethics Commission had, in many eyes, botched the case against Arnold at a previous meeting in April. Three legislative staffers accused Arnold of sexually harassing them and, while Arnold quickly resigned, the administrative case against him continued.

The Frankfort press corps gathers in the hall after the Legislative Ethics Commission kicked us out. (Photo credit: Tom Loftus)

The Frankfort press corps gathers in the hall after the Ethics Commission kicked us out. (Photo credit: Tom Loftus)

Three Ethics Commission members didn’t showing up for the original hearing and, with one seat already vacant, it left a bare minimum of five members to decide the Arnold case. The commission voted 4-1 to find him guilty of violating the legislature’s ethics code, but didn’t have the five votes necessary to punish him.

Public outcry was swift, with newspaper editorial pages across the state condemning the absent commission members.

Wednesday, Chairman George Troutman asserted that the commission had never closed the Arnold case and was authorized to reconsider it. Seven members — including the three who had missed the April meeting — showed up to this second meeting. Two of the three previously absent members were the most vocal about wanting to reconsider the case.

But Arnold’s attorney, Steve Downey, objected. Downey said the case was over after the April decision, and retrying Arnold wasn’t fair.

After two hours of discussion, the commission voted to enter closed session to discuss whether to re-hear the case. Members of the Frankfort press corps, including me, initially went into the hallway. But, led by two fellow press corps members and competitors, Tom Loftus of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader, we returned to ask for the open meetings law exemption that allowed the commission to close the meeting.

Former state Rep. John Arnold, now accused of sexual harassment.

Former state Rep. John Arnold, now accused of sexual harassment.

Troutman couldn’t provide one, and reporters sat back down. In the corner of the room, commission staff went digging into the Kentucky Revised Statutes. Troutman came back and cited KRS 61.810(j), which allows public or quasi-public bodies to close meetings in certain circumstances. Brammer stood to formally protest the decision, and all 10 other outlets — including me, on behalf of WAVE-TV — followed.

Then, we were kicked out into the hall for a second time. At least this time, they had provided a legal basis for doing it.

Ultimately, we barely had enough time to read the KRS exemption. Commission members reopened the meeting about 10 minutes later and then voted unanimously to reconsider the Arnold case.

After four hours of testimony and arguments, members voted 5-1 (one member left before the vote) to find Arnold guilty on three charges of ethics violations. They imposed a $1,000 fine for each charge and a public reprimand.

While the potential open meetings violation had no role in the case’s outcome — and ultimately only made my web copy, not my  TV story of the day’s events — it’s important to call out public officials when they make mistakes regarding open meetings.

If a panel including a judge, a lawyer, two former state lawmakers, and business leaders didn’t know the law, does your local town board? The public has a right to know what their elected and appointed officials are doing — that’s why the law exists.

It should be taken seriously, by officials and by journalists.


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EXCLUSIVE: TARC spends thousands on security officers after deadly stabbing

NOTE: The stories first aired on April 10, 2014, and April 25, 2014, on WAVE-TV. I broke this major local story after getting a tip from sources on my City Hall beat that Louisville’s bus agency was going to hire off-duty officers after a deadly stabbing. I later filed a records request to find out how much the reaction was costing taxpayers.

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Louisville’s bus agency spent more than $22,000 to hire off-duty police officers in the four weeks after a deadly stabbing aboard a city bus.

At least 13 Metro Police officers have expressed interest in working for TARC on a part-time basis, according to records obtained by WAVE 3 News under Kentucky’s open records law.

TARC administrators earlier this month decided to hire armed, uniformed off-duty police officers to ride its buses on high-priority routes. The extra security has cost at least $22,460, and the spending continues.

“We will continually be monitoring and evaluating security and will spend to the level appropriate within budget restrictions,” said Kay Stewart, a TARC spokeswoman.

The money is coming out of the bus agency’s operating budget for now, Stewart said.

On March 16, a teenager was stabbed while riding a bus on Broadway. The incident sparked mob violence downtown, and Metro officials have responded by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on security cameras, police overtime and, most recently, off-duty officers on city buses.

tarc stabbing2The bus security cost is a high number, but it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to the stabbing, said Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, a Republican who’s on the budget committee.

“What we have to do to ensure safety should not cost $22,000 a month, but we’ll see,” Downard said. “(The violence) needed an immediate reaction and an immediate response – I would support (the spending).”

TARC is paying the off-duty officers $25 an hour for the work.

The cost of the extra security will come down over the next several weeks, council members predicted.

“As they work through which buses need to have the officers on board, I’m sure those numbers will adjust,” said Councilman David James, a Democrat who rode TARC buses twice after the violence to check security for himself.

The council wouldn’t “run away from” providing a budget increase to the bus agency for extra security, James said.

Original story: TARC to hire armed, off-duty police officers for bus security


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Session Wrap: Covering My Third State Capitol

The Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort in March 2014.

Kentucky’s 2014 legislative session finished this week and, with it, I’m heading back to Louisville for the rest of the year.

It was my sixth spring covering a legislature, including three in Missouri, two in Wisconsin, and now one in Kentucky. Each state’s legislature — and Capitol — has its differences and similarities.

This year’s session began with a literal bang, as Pikeville Rep. Leslie Combs accidentally shot her gun in her Capitol Annex office. No one was injured, but it dominated the headlines for a couple days. The session also ended chaotically, but in a more traditional sense, with lawmakers unsuccessfully scrambling to finish legislation before the midnight deadline on April 15.

For me, it was an opportunity to do what I do best, and what I enjoy the most.

This was also the first time ever that I had to manage my own political coverage schedule. In Missouri, I took direction and advice from my boss and mentor, KMOX-AM’s Phill Brooks. In Wisconsin, I learned from one of the country’s best local TV political reporters, Jessica Arp, and helped out regularly during perhaps the state’s most politically charged era.

Gov. Steve Beshear answers questions from the Frankfort press corps.

Gov. Steve Beshear answers questions from the Frankfort press corps.

This year, it was time to put that experience to use. Before the session, I drafted a list of the most controversial bills for the session. (I later had to add a few priorities to the list, as events dictated.) Every night, I put together a schedule for the next day by looking at the lengthy list of committee meetings, sifted through the newly filed bills, and kept my ears open for big-name politicians holding events in the Capitol.

I made the hour-long drive to Frankfort on about 40 of the session’s 60 days (some Mondays and most Fridays featured little news) and filed more than 100 stories as a one-man-band. My record was five stories in one day, but I could only manage that output when photographers came to assist.

There were several late nights in the Capitol — none later than 2:15 a.m. on the legislature’s final day — and over the weeks, I took in not only the beauty of the building, but of the political processes under its dome.

Kentucky’s Capitol has the prettiest interior, with views from all floors of the entire length of the building. It’s also by far the smallest Capitol I’ve covered — so small that legislative offices are in the Annex across the street. On the downside, the House and Senate chambers aren’t as ornate as in the other two states.

Missouri has the best-manicured grounds. I’ve heard several times the story of how the state over-taxed Missourians during construction of the new Capitol in the early 1900s, and decided to pour the extra money into statues and artwork instead of returning it to the people. But inside, the third and fourth floor hallways don’t overlook the rest of the building, as in Kentucky and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has by far the best-looking Capitol from the outside of the three I’ve covered — and perhaps in the entire country. It also stands apart in that it has four wings, instead of two. This leads to the inside being quite confusing to navigate.

Politically, nothing in Missouri or Kentucky compares to the “all politics, all the time” mentality of 2011-2012 in Wisconsin, where I covered the historical recall of Gov. Scott Walker and the polarization of the state legislature. Republicans controlled Wisconsin’s government in Wisconsin, while Missouri and Kentucky have divided government between the two parties. That means less gets done in the latter two states — but also means that the most-controversial legislation dies.

From my own scheduling perspective, Kentucky has the shortest session, at 60 days in even years and just 30 days in the odd. That means I won’t be back in Frankfort full-time until January — unless Gov. Steve Beshear calls lawmakers back into special session.


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INVESTIGATIONS

recordsTheo doesn’t back down from a confrontation to find the truth. He’s questioned mayors about illegal spending and questionable hiring — and once had a car door slammed into his arm by a mayor trying to flee — and is a frequent user of both open records and open meetings laws.


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