(A Reporter’s) Notes on a Scandal

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Posted February 14, 2008 in Feature Story

This story, if those mentioned in it are to be believed, is the product of a long list of good intentions—one well-meaning act after another leading, if not to hell, then to a form of journalistic purgatory. 

It began—again, provided that one believes the players involved—with the very best of intentions, that of one human being trying to help another in a time of dire need. In December 2003, Temecula City Councilman Chuck Washington gave Tim O’Leary, then a reporter for the Riverside Press-Enterprise, a gift of cash after learning that O’Leary and his family had lost all their possessions in a disastrous house fire. 

That singular act of kindness was a mistake: O’Leary was the P.E.’s Temecula reporter, and by taking Washington’s money, he violated a basic tenet of journalism ethics: Reporters aren’t allowed to accept gifts of any kind from their sources. When, years later, O’Leary tried to pay Washington back, this second well-intentioned act set into motion a chain of events through which his editors learned of the whole affair, and after a brief investigation forced O’Leary to resign. That constituted yet another good intention, that of a newspaper vigorously enforcing its professional standards in order to keep everything on the up and up. 

This very article is a result of good intentions on the part of its author. In a January 17 Weekly critique of a P.E. story on the Temecula City Council, I pointed out reporter David Danelski’s failure to mention the O’Leary-Washington episode anywhere in his article. This omission, I wrote, was significant, given that the P.E. piece was about possible conflicts of interest on the part of Temecula council members, including Washington. “The inclusion of that information,” I wrote, “might have at least given readers a chance to decide for themselves whether (Danelski’s) article was a legitimate investigative piece or merely the P.E. trying to show its Temecula coverage is no longer bought and paid for.”

 That single sentence resulted in a phone call from Washington, who politely suggested that I might have been unkind in my reference to the incident. O’Leary had, after all, lost nearly everything in a fire, Washington said, and he—Washington—had merely tried to help him out. I had to admit the councilman had a point: By ignoring the context by which O’Leary had accepted money from Washington, I did both men and my readers a disservice. And so, in an effort to correct a wrong, I called O’Leary, apologized, and suggested that the best way to set the record straight would be for me to write a full and honest account of the events that led to his downfall at the P.E. O’Leary agreed to be interviewed for the article. 

So many good intentions, so many unintended consequences. What follows is not the story I intended to write about O’Leary, but it is—as I promised him—a full and honest account of his downfall.

On the night O’Leary’s Fallbrook home burned down he was in Boston with his wife, Margaret, celebrating her birthday. Though the cause of the fire was officially classified as “undetermined,” O’Leary believes it started when his sister, who’d been staying with the family and was home caring for the couple’s 12-year-son, set down a lit cigarette in the garage. The sister and O’Leary’s son managed to escape with their lives and the clothes on their backs, but the blaze destroyed everything else—clothes, records and photo albums, furniture and appliances, even the family car that had been parked in the garage. Worse for the O’Learys was the destruction of Margaret’s personal computer, through which she ran a home-based appraisal business and without which—since P.E. reporters are notoriously low-paid—the family lost the lion’s share of its income.  

“The financial problems struck right away,” says O’Leary, who joined the P.E. in 1990 after a stint writing for a community section of the Sacramento Bee. “We had to keep paying mortgage on the house and had to pay rental property. My wife had to give 10 grand back to clients for work she couldn’t perform. We had all this money going out of pocket, with mainly a reporter’s wage to live on. The P.E. offered to cash in my vacation time for me—I said, ‘That’s a nice gesture, but my house just burned down.’”

O’Leary was a well-known figure in his community. Before becoming Temecula’s City Hall reporter, he was the P.E.’s bureau chief at the paper’s now-closed Sun City office. People liked him, and as word of his troubles spread, offers of assistance came in. Temecula Councilwoman Maryann Edwards connected the family with a local charitable organization that provided the reporter’s son with some badly needed school clothes and supplies. Councilman Ron Roberts gave O’Leary an avocado picker. 

Each of the donations represented a violation of the P.E.’s “no-gifts” policy. It might be argued that only the most heartless rule would deny an avocado picker to someone whose house had burned down just before Christmas. But it might also be argued that, by accepting these modest gifts, O’Leary muddied the ethical waters to the point that his judgment was clouded when the real test of ethics came.  

The test took the form of a check, written by Chuck Washington’s wife, Kathy, and hand-delivered by the councilman to the P.E. reporter after a council meeting. O’Leary says he had developed a professional relationship with Washington when Washington was a city councilman in the nearby city of Menifee in the late ’90s. But he insists that they weren’t friends and had never socialized outside of work. 

According to O’Leary, the check was for $500 and came with a card that read: “Tim and Family—I was given an incredibly generous gift this Christmas and couldn’t think of anyone I’d rather share it with than you all. I hope it helps a bit. Kathy Washington.”

  It’s difficult to imagine a brighter ethical red flag to a journalist than to be handed a personal check by an elected official he or she is assigned to cover. To get a sense of how obvious O’Leary’s course of action should have been at that moment, I called my 15-year-old niece in Downey and asked her opinion on whether a reporter should ever accept money from an elected official. 

“I think that would be wrong, because it’s, like, bribery,” she replied after considering the question for five seconds. “The official would expect the reporter to only write only nice things about him.” 

Nevertheless, O’Leary, who graduated from the University of Texas with a B.A. in journalism, took the money.

“I initially told Chuck I couldn’t take it because of the amount,” he says. “But he said that his wife just got an inheritance and was feeling pretty good about things, and wanted me to have it.”

Washington says his wife had received a large cash gift from her mother that Christmas—a statement Kathy Washington confirms and O’Leary later said may have been the case. Wherever the money came from, O’Leary kept it under his hat for four years, during which time he continued covering the Temecula council. In its April 2007 story on O’Leary’s resignation, the P.E. stated that a review by senior editors of the reporter’s work “could not determine whether the gifts had any effect on O’Leary’s coverage of Temecula government.” You better believe we at the Weekly checked, too, and found nothing to suggest overt bias. 

Given that fact, it’s more than a little interesting that what ultimately led to the exposure of O’Leary’s ethical lapse was an article he wrote in April 2007 on then-Mayor Washington’s State of the City address (Temecula rotates council members to the one-year mayoral post). The story, about Washington’s failure to mention a failed college building project in his speech, was similar to O’Leary’s previous articles except for one key difference: It was, if you squinted your eyes just right while reading it, slightly critical of Washington. Both men admit that the article upset the mayor, so much so that he drove down to the P.E.’s headquarters in downtown Riverside to complain to O’Leary in person.   

“Chuck came unglued,” O’Leary says. “He acted like he was wounded. He stormed into the conference room at the P.E., told me he didn’t like the story and that he didn’t like the answers I was giving him about the story, and then he stormed out. I thought he had come in for an interview—I had my notebook with me. He’s always been pretty thin-skinned, but I thought he’d gotten over that when he got on the Temecula council.”

Washington has a different recollection of the meeting. 

“I told him I didn’t like the article, and he suddenly became very angry and started shouting, just acting very strangely,” says Washington. “It was like he was a different person than I had known. I said, ‘Tim, you’ve changed.’”

Whatever happened, the encounter unnerved O’Leary. Could it be that Washington actually thought the P.E. owed him good press? After discussing the incident with his wife, O’Leary concluded that his best course of action would be to pay back the money to Washington. 

“I just thought that it would be best to clear the decks a bit,” he says. “I never felt obliged to do anything, but my wife and I were in a position that we could afford $500 out of pocket.”

O’Leary says he wrote a check for $600—the $500 Washington had given him, plus four years’ interest—and left it for Washington at City Hall. It’s at this point that Washington and O’Leary’s stories really diverge, as the councilman insists he had given O’Leary not one gift of cash in 2003, but two

“The press later tried to characterize the $600 as repayment with interest,” Washington says. “That’s not the case. We had given him one check for $500 and another for $100.”

Chuck and Kathy Washington insist that in December 2003, they gave O’Leary a check for $100, the amount being all they could afford at the time to help the reporter. Then, when Kathy received an unexpected Christmas boon from her mother, she says the couple decided to further assist O’Leary with a second check—this one for $500. Their claim directly conflicts with O’Leary’s account both to the Weekly and, apparently, to his former editors at the P.E., who reported only that O’Leary tried to pay back $500 and interest.

Asked about the discrepancy, O’Leary laughed out loud, and then said, “Washington’s wrong. It was one check—for $500.”

To support their version of events, the Washingtons faxed me a copy of the carbons from their check registry showing two checks to O’Leary—one for $100, and another for $500 written a few days later.

Asked about that evidence, O’Leary says: “I don’t remember the $100. It’s 100% to my knowledge it was just the one $500 dollar check.”

Whoever’s telling the truth, O’Leary’s effort to pay back Washington crucified him. Washington drove back to the P.E. and handed O’Leary’s check to the reporter’s editor, saying that he was forbidden by law from accepting so large an amount and that he had been unable to reach O’Leary by phone. Game over. 

“I got a call from management saying to come on down for a meeting,” he says, the memory of that April day still so vivid for him that he recalls it in present tense. “I get there and my editor and two or three other editors are there. They say, ‘You know why you’re here?’ And I say, ‘I have a pretty good idea.’”

Following two separate interviews with his editors, O’Leary was given a set of options: quit or be fired. Ten months after choosing the former option, he expresses amazement that his bosses reacted so strongly over something any other journalist and my 15-year-old niece could have told him was a serious offense. 

O’Leary, 54, says that at one point during his meetings with his editors, he identified a fellow P.E. reporter who—O’Leary claims—had received financial assistance from a municipality during a time of need.

“I told them, ‘What about what he received?’” O’Leary says, “I said, ‘What happens when an employee of a company suffers a big loss like mine? Certainly, you have ethical obligations, but if you’re known in the community, people are going to want to help.’”

This failed to achieve the desired result. 

“The paper took the liberty of clearing out my desk for me,” he recalls.

O’Leary continues to cover Temecula and other southwestern Inland cities for the Valley News, a weekly newspaper published in Fallbrook, and volunteers as chairman of the communications committee of the Rainbow Municipal Water District. He maintains a smoldering resentment toward the P.E. in general, and toward Washington in particular. 

“My feeling is that if receiving my money would have created any difficulties for Chuck, he could have signed it over to any one of a dozen charities,” he says. “He could have just said, ‘Tim, thanks for paying me back—we’re just going to give it away.’”

“I got a call from a friend of mine who read about what happened on a Poynter news blog,” he continues. “He was calling from Virginia. In one fell swoop, I got put into the Jayson Blair school of journalistic felons.”

For his part, Washington, while insisting he never wanted to see O’Leary fired (“I just couldn’t accept that check!”), nevertheless says the episode has left him more cautious about whom he tries to help in the future. 

“My wife and I did what we did pure of heart,” he says. “The worst part of all this is the actions taken by Tim and the P.E. have changed the nature of our community and community politics. We lived our lives in this community as an open book, and now the idea of helping gives us pause. I never wanted to be so cynical or jaded that I’ll be afraid to help someone who needs my help.”

 

 


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