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Monday, April 2, 2007

Making a federal case over a $225 'coronation'

Editor's Note: As an extra for our blog readers, Minnesota Lawyer is making the text of this week's editor's column available in its entirety.

By Mark A. Cohen
Minnesota Lawyer, 4/02/07

For the extravagance of spending less than the price of an iPod on the ceremony marking her investiture as the state’s top federal prosecutor, U.S. attorney Rachel Paulose recently found herself on a TV news report fending off a charge that she had wasted taxpayer money. How did this odd turn of events come to be? Therein lies our tale.

The 33-year-old was appointed as acting head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office a little more than a year ago after Thomas Heffelfinger announced he was leaving his post to return to private practice. Shortly before they adjourned for the year last December, senators unanimously voted to confirm Paulose to fill the post on a permanent basis.

Hailing from an immigrant family, Paulose has an impressive resume and a reputation as a hard worker. As the youngest U.S. attorney in the nation, she has a compelling story that seems tailor made for a feature article.

The Pioneer Press printed such a piece in February (in fact, it was puffy enough to make a magic dragon blush), but the honeymoon with the media was soon to be over.

Apparently lacking absolutely anything interesting to cover, KSTP’s Bob McNaney prepared an investigative report on Paulose’s investiture ceremony. (The report aired on March 23, two weeks after the investiture.)

Due to the large number of guests to be accommodated, Paulose had been on the lookout for a larger-than-usual venue for the investiture, and jumped at the University of St. Thomas Law School’s offer to make its auditorium space available for free. The deal was a good one for the UST, which got the distinction of holding a U.S. attorney’s investiture on its grounds, and for taxpayers, who did not have to pay anything for the space. (UST charges private parties up to $1,500 for use of the space.) Paulose’s office had a budget of $500 for the ceremony. Because the space was free, only $225 was actually spent.

I am at a loss to explain how this constitutes mismanagement of taxpayer funds, but McNaney’s report gives off the distinct impression that it was. I found the report’s attempts to make a federal case out of this $225 “coronation” laughable. The only thing missing from the melodramatic segment was a soundtrack.

And then it got one! The report cuts to a shot of a choir singing the national anthem at the investiture. Was having a choir sing at the event over the top? Film at 11:00.

Paradoxically, the report accuses Paulose of both wasting taxpayer money and acting unethically by accepting free use of the auditorium. The report maintains the space arrangement created an “appearance of a conflict of interest.”

The exact nature of this conflict was never fully explained, but presumably had to do with UST’s giving something of value (a discount) to the U.S. attorney. Where the logic falls down is that the discount benefited the taxpayers rather than Paulose herself. And just what is UST supposed to be purchasing? UST is a Catholic university with a mission of encouraging ethics. From the report, you’d think that Vito Corleone had loaned Paulose the room.

The report did mention almost as an aside that there has been some attrition from the U.S. attorney’s office. However, it did not provide any statistics, expert commentary or anything else to show the amount of departures was unusually high given the changeover in regimes. (I cannot say at this point whether it is or isn’t — only that the story should not be reported unless you have the evidence to back it up.)

My critique of the report would probably end right here if I had not gone on the KSTP website and viewed the raw footage of the interview with Paulose. As is typical with TV news, the station aired only a few short sound bites from a lengthy interview. The added footage is available as a Web “extra.”

I found what I saw disturbing. It is clear that Paulose is operating under the mistaken belief that the interview will be about her priorities as U.S. attorney. McNaney, of course, had an entirely different motive.

I am aware that Paulose as a precondition for her interviews has been asking that the questioning be limited to her priorities in the office. (In fact, that’s exactly what Minnesota Lawyer was told when we inquired about the possibility of an interview earlier this year.) Scott Johnson, a co-author of the Powerline blog and a friend of Paulose, confirmed for me that KSTP had agreed to those parameters. (I left McNaney a voicemail message last week, but he did not return my call — perhaps because I told him what I actually wanted to talk to him about.)

In the raw footage, McNaney initially asks softball questions. He lets her give an overview of her priorities, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, keeps bringing up the investiture (which had not yet been held at the time of the interview). At first he seems to know little or nothing about it, and even implies that he thinks it is going to be held at a courthouse. Paulose corrects him and tells him it will be at UST.

McNaney soon pounces, telling Paulose that he has a six-page single-spaced typewritten document that contains all the details about the investiture at UST. This document shows that it will be an elaborate affair at which there will be a … gasp … choir. Is she aware of the document? Does it surprise her to know that he has the document? Does it surprise her that somebody would give him the document?

Despite Paulose’s request for information about what document he is talking about, McNaney never offers to furnish the document or provide additional details. Without further information, Paulose wisely refrains from commenting on the purported document.

McNaney then switches to other topics, and soon asks the question reporters often ask when they are wrapping up. “Is there anything you would like to add?”
Paulose looks straight toward McNaney, and says in a clear, measured voice: “I would like to discuss more about my priorities.”

As I watch this raw footage, it’s obvious that everything she says after this point is going to be left on the cutting-room floor. Paulose herself even asks at one point, “Are you just going to delete all of this?” McNaney responds, “Naw. If we get more we can use it in more than one story, obviously.” It’s almost humorous to watch Paulose keep McNaney and his crew hostage talking about what they were supposed to be there to discuss when they so obviously want to leave.

By the way, I’m still waiting for those other stories from KSTP ….


Gopher Guts said...

This is an appalling story of journalistic malpractice.

However, I would hasten to point out that the station deserves credit for posting the full interview on its website, which allowed you and others to draw your own conclusions from this report. Obviously, the hit job will be seen by many more people than the full interview, but at least it was made available.

News outlets should commit to posting full interviews consistently, now that the technical capability to do so is within easy reach.

Thank G-d for the internets!

Mark Cohen, editor said...

Thanks for making such a salient point, gopher guts.

It is indeed worth noting that KSTP freely chose to put the full footage on the Web where folks like you and I can go see it and make our own judgments. That’s always a risky proposition, and the station deserves recognition for doing it.

I think as journalism evolves, you will see more and more interviews and other source material made available on the Web.

The potential downside is if we journalists start shirking our responsibility to provide a complete picture because we know the full information is available electronically. Most folks can’t or won’t take the time to sort through it all. The role of the journalist increasingly has become to serve as guide through the thicket of available information. If we intentionally or negligently take folks down the wrong path, the responsibility is ours.