There’s a standard set of gripes that journalists hear from people who feel maligned by a story: “The information was taken out of context! We were misrepresented! We weren’t given the chance to tell our side of the story!”
But in the mini-scandal of how New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s office used the press to spread damaging information about a political nemesis, State Senate President Joseph Bruno, it is the journalists at the Albany Times Union who are crying foul.
New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo released a scathing report last Monday on his office’s investigation into the use, by Spitzer’s top advisers, of state police to keep tabs on Bruno’s taxpayer-funded travel. In that report, the AG strongly implied that the Times Union abused the state Freedom of Information Law to protect its sources in the governor’s office.
But copies of the original FOIL requests, provided to CJR by Rex Smith, the Times Union’s editor in chief, suggest that the AG selectively quoted from the requests in a way that distorted the press’s role in this scandal.
The controversy started on July 1, when the paper ran a story by statehouse reporter Jim Odato on how Bruno had flown in state police helicopters, at taxpayer expense, from Albany to political fundraisers in New York City.
The revelation was based on flight records that, according to the piece, were released under the Freedom Of Information Law. Just four days earlier, on June 27, Odato had filed a FOIL request with Spitzer’s office asking for flight records on seven top state officials (including Spitzer and Bruno) after receiving a tip from what Smith says was “a source well known to Jim.”
Over the next week, Bruno loudly accused Spitzer of tracking him with state troopers, and then leaking the findings to the press. Spitzer and his office defended their actions, saying that the information released to the Times Union was simply matter of routine compliance with the FOIL request.
According to the Attorney General’s report, in mid-May, Spitzer’s state police liaison, William Howard, asked the agency’s acting superintendent to keep him informed of Bruno’s travels, claiming that the governor’s office had received a FOIL request for the information. In fact, all parties now admit, no such FOIL request existed at the time. State troopers who had driven Bruno around on days when he attended high-profile political events were interviewed by other officers, and this information was used reconstruct Bruno’s use of state aircraft.
These itineraries arrived at the Times Union on June 28 and 29, as part of the response to Odato’s FOIL request—which he filed after getting the tip on Bruno. Anyone who has worked with freedom of information laws, at the state or federal level, knows that requests don’t typically get such a prompt response. “They had it all ready to go. It was clear to me that the governor’s office wanted us to have this information,” says Robert Port, who runs the Times Union’s investigative unit. “It flew up a red flag. It made me more concerned that it was authentic, and that it was accurate.”
The article, headlined “State Flies Bruno to Fundraisers,” was published the Sunday before a week when Port and Odato were going to be out of the office on vacation. When the story proved to have legs, Smith says he e-mailed Port on the morning of July 4, asking Port to keep digging on the air travel story, “even if what we find doesn’t match the agenda of our sources.”
When Port and Odato came back in the office on Monday, July 9, they set to work on a follow-up. The next day, Odato sent another FOIL request to the governor’s office.
The attorney general’s report makes much—too much, as it turns out—of this second FOIL request. The first request explicitly sought “materials that explain the purpose of the trips, itineraries, manifests and the schedules” for Governor Spitzer and the Lieutenant Governor. But for Bruno and the other four officials the request generically asked for “records.” But the filing nonetheless netted the Times Union “itineraries, manifests and schedules” related to Bruno—in other words, they got the goods on Bruno that someone wanted them to get, even though they didn’t specifically request them.
The second request asked for identical materials on all seven officials. As Cuomo’s report puts it, “The timing of this request is odd, however, given that it was sent nine days after the July 1 article appeared, and shortly after the OAG and other agencies had confirmed the various investigations into this matter.” The implication is that the Times Union had filed the second request to provide cover for its sources in the governor’s office, who were defending themselves by saying they had simply been complying with Odato’s FOIL request.