Monday, April 13, 2009

Key Points from April 1 Meeting wherein Sylvester Brown Addressed Post-Dispatch Allegations

On April 1, 2009 I was called into the Post to answer their allegation that I took a trip as a gift. Citing a “long-standing policy” and claiming this was an internal matter, a Post Dispatch representative said I could not bring private legal counsel.

In attendance were three Guild representatives (on my behalf), and representatives from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch including two individuals from the Human Resources Department, the managing editor and my immediate editor. The newspaper’s executive editor and its assistant managing editor did not attend the meeting. The head of HR said the meeting was called to “hear my side of the situation.” She then asked for my statement, which I prepared in writing in advance for my own clarity. Below are the key points from my statement.

-- My quick trip to Washington, D.C. on 3/26/09 had nothing to do with my employment at the Post-Dispatch. Nor was it what I, or anyone else who has reviewed the facts, would consider a freelance assignment. The Guild’s contract stipulates that Post Dispatch employees can do freelance work for other entities as long as it does not create a “real or potential conflict of interest” with what the newspaper considers its “competition.”

Chronology leading up to trip and after as I detailed at the meeting:

On or about 3/23/09, I received a press release about the Metro East Citizens Land Cooperative (MECLC) holding a press conference in Washington. The group consists of mayors from East St. Louis and thirteen other surrounding Southern Illinois communities who planned to go to the nation’s capitol to convince Obama to re-direct stimulus funds to a community-based renewable energy project. Because I had written about the initiative previously, I considered this column a follow-up on the latest developments.

On 3/24/09 while working from my home in the evening, I contacted East St. Louis Mayor Parks, Laura Filbert Zacher, the spokeswoman for the MECLC and former Congressman Walter Fauntroy who had agreed to “present” the Illinois group among many others in Washington. 20 minutes of conversation was had with Parks and about two and a half hours talking with Fauntroy. The congressman and I hit it off on a personal level. We moved way beyond the East St. Louis effort and the column I was working and on to talking about his work for so many years to address the problems of poverty and wealth creation in his district and what he’s doing now. We discussed my work in this area with Take Five magazine (the publication I owned and operated for 15 years). We talked more about his past efforts to uplift poor black communities and his national and international efforts toward this effort today; and he also mentioned several organizations dedicated to this effort including the Summit Council for World Peace and its executive director Antonio Betancourt. I told Fauntroy about a book proposal I was working on. (During the meeting with the Post, I handed Post representatives a copy of the book proposal, which focuses on aligning the black agenda with President Obama’s initiatives to create vibrant, inner city communities. The book argues that the task can be done by enhancing or replicating national and international efforts currently underway. I also shared a copy on an email sent to a possible agent weeks before to show this was not a proposal I drafted overnight to defend myself). I asked Fauntroy if he would mind if I contacted him after I received a definite bite on the book to expound on our conversation about his knowledge and experiences for the book. Fauntroy said he’d be honored. I spoke to my wife about Fauntroy and the invaluable addition he would be as an interviewee in my proposed book. Later I researched Fauntroy and some of the organizations he mentioned, especially the Summit Council for World Peace and its president Betancourt. The organization’s mission statement (to educate people, especially leaders, on ideas and technologies that expand opportunities and reform structures that empower the underprivileged, to participate in wealth-creation in the United States and around the world, to address more effectively the problems of poverty) fell right in line to the theme of my proposed book. Fauntroy, Betancourt and a couple of other organizations were added to my long list of potential interviewees.

On Wednesday, 3/25, I called Zacher from the Post for follow up questions about the column about MECLC. Zacher shared that Fauntroy enjoyed our conversation and that we have a lot in common. I thanked her, got answers for my column, continued writing and turned in the column around 4:15. My wife called me from home around 6:00 and said Lara was trying to reach me. I called Lara about a half hour later. She said “they” really wanted me to come to the press conference and were considering a live feed. It would be cheaper, she said, to fly me out. She said she had found a same day flight for $258 on that would get me to Washington DC a half hour before the press conference. She said I could book the flight and I’d be reimbursed for the flight and cab fare. I stopped her there and said “Lara, I’ve written the column already from the local angle. The Post Dispatch is not interested in me writing about a national event and definitely wouldn’t fly me out to DC to cover it. I told her, in no uncertain terms, that I wouldn’t be writing about the MECLC. Zacher said, “it’s not about that, the team just really wants you to see this.” My wife and I spoke again because an e-mail had been sent to my home e-mail account from a woman by the name of Betancourt, saying basically what Lara had said. At that point, I knew this was about the bigger picture outside the MECLC -- it was about Fauntroy, Betancourt, Summit Council for World Peace, national and international connections and my book proposal. As far as I was concerned, the East St. Louis MECLC project, my column or anything else “local” was the past. I booked the flight on my credit card.

On Thursday, 3/26, I took the 6:40 am flight, landed in DC around 9:50, caught a cab and arrived at the press conference around 10:20 am. At a reception desk, a package awaited me from Fauntroy – inside was information about the project he kicked off in the early 1980s (at the Post meeting, I presented the package, showing that it was in my name, not in the Post’s name). The receptionist asked for my flight and cab receipts in order to reimburse me. He then escorted me into the press conference, introduced me to Antonio Betancourt, saying “this is the gentleman who wanted you to attend.” Betancourt gave me his card moments before the conference began. The Post-Dispatch Washington bureau reporter also came to the conference. After the press conference, he joked about how he could have stayed in the office, if he knew I was going to be there. I told him I wasn’t there for Post business. He asked that I call him later that day. After the press conference, I shook hands with Fauntroy and left immediately (no interviews) and headed for the airport. When I got there, I called home, then called the Washington bureau reporter. He asked what I planned to write. I said “probably nothing” because I had covered the MECLC in that day’s column and reiterated I was not there for the Post. If I write anything, I told him, it would be about Washington’s Metro system vs St. Louis’ Metro and/or question why our Mayor Slay wasn’t in DC pushing for stimulus money or “something columny like that.” But, I added, that would be my editor’s call, not mine. About an hour or so later, my immediate editor called to say he heard I was in DC. “Who sent me? Was I planning to write anything about the trip? Would I be back in time to file a column?” I answered all his questions and we left it that we’d talk more Friday morning.

On Friday morning 3/27, I sent my editor a summary of that day’s column submission: I planned to write about Mayor Slay and how he had ducked televised debates before the upcoming elections. Around 10:30 or so, (my editor) called me in for the brief meeting. He asked if (East St. Louis, Mayor) Parks or (Brooklyn, IL. mayor ) O’Bannon had sent me to Washington. He said there was an appearance of impropriety. I asked him, “how so?” He said the group I had just written about had paid for a trip to Washington. I disagreed, explaining that the group I had written about had nothing to do with it. I told him about the Summit Council for World Peace. I told him I paid for the trip with my own credit card but was reimbursed via check by Betancourt’s organization. I expressed a willingness return the check if that would ease any semblance of doubt on the part of the Post as to my motivations. I told the editor that I have other interests beyond St. Louis and East St. Louis and I was pursuing those interests with no connection with the Post-Dispatch. The editor insisted that the only reason anyone would be interested in me was because I work for the Post. I disagreed, arguing that these were issues I’ve championed long before becoming a Post-Dispatch employee. Besides, I said, the trip was scheduled AFTER the column was finished. I asked the editor to explain exactly who benefited if there was some sort of nefarious collusion between me and East St. Louis officials. I asked if he seriously thought any of this made sense or if he thought I actually took a bribe of some sort. He said, personally, he didn’t but upper management was upset and the assistant managing editor would probably want to talk to me later. After the brief meeting, I went back to finish my column. Around 3:00 pm, (one hour before my column would be turned in), the assistant managing editor walked over to my desk and said the managing editor wanted to see me in her office. On the way, we were joined by a union shop steward. He asked me what was going on. I told him I had no idea. Upon entering her office, the managing editor said “Sylvester, we want you to leave the building. You’re on paid leave, pending our investigation.” The shop steward asked if there were going to be some sort of discussion. The managing editor said, not until the investigation was complete. The union representative asked how long the investigation would take. The managing editor said she didn’t know. However, she stated, “this is a very serious matter that could lead to termination.” With that, I left her office and the building.

-- After my statement, the head of HR asked for clarification of when I actually talked to Fauntroy. She also wanted to know why I didn’t feel the need to tell my editors where I was that Thursday. I replied that I usually don’t inform editors of my whereabouts unless we’re tracking an ongoing story (like a recent court case I covered). I asked my immediate editor to confirm this and he nodded in the affirmative. I further stated that the Post gets many of my nights and weekends. “Just ask my wife,” I offered. The head of HR asked if there were scheduled hours for columnists to be in the office or on call. The managing editor said “yes.” The union shop steward, a long-time reporter, countered that columnists aren’t paid overtime and those he’s known write on weekends and at all odd hours of the day and night. They usually draft their own hours. That’s been the standard rule in all departments, he added. The managing editor responded by saying she was shocked to learn that one of her columnists was in DC and that I should always be available by phone. (My editor did in fact reach me by phone).

The business representative for the union stated that I was upfront and honest about the entire episode, didn’t attempt to hide any facts, offered the information of being reimbursed; that I even offered not to take the reimbursement or cash the check if it would clear up any doubts about my motivations. I stated that I had my credit card receipt for the flight and I could have just shown I paid for everything and not mention the reimbursement. Were I guilty of some scheme or gift, why did I offer the information?

The union rep asked my editor if I had ever lied about anything. The editor responded “Oh no, Sylvester has never lied about anything.”

My editor said he thought I had told him Bentacourt was on the East St. Louis groups’ board of directors. I told him, he must have misunderstood. I never said such a thing and pointed out that it wasn’t true. Bentacourt is not on MELC’s board, but is the director of the organization that invited me to Washington and had reimbursed me for the flight.

The managing editor suggested that we read the section in the company’s policy about travel. The language was very clear, she insisted. The union shop steward said he had indeed read the policy and, “Sylvester wasn’t covering a story for the Post-Dispatch.”

At that point, representatives from the Post said they had no further questions. I asked if there was anything else they needed and told them I would happy to supply whatever they wanted because I wanted everything out on the table. They said I answered all their questions. The meeting ended within less than an hour.

1 comment:

Sparky said...

If the investigation into Sylvester's case is any indication of the investigative work of the Post-Dispatch, then God help St. Louis.