Thursday, March 05, 2009

Boston Globe Scoops A-B TAB on Conflicts-of-Interest Story

The Boston Globe's metro section ran as its top story yesterday a report of conflicts-of-interest among two members of the Boston Redevelopment Authority's Boston College Task Force, and another potential conflict-of-interest of the Allston-Brighton District 9 City Councilor Mark Ciommo.

In these days of community newspapers, where GateHouse Media's Wicked Local websites are fighting off a new challenge from the Boston Globe's YourTown entries, you would think that the little local paper would break a story like this -- particularly where the original public statements were made at local community meetings.

But you would be wrong. The Globe scooped the Allston-Brighton TAB -- on a local story on which many details are more than a year old.

Task force member John Bruno has a son who attends BC on an Allston/Brighton Scholarship provided through the community benefits portion of an earlier Article 80 review process -- a community benefits package that the task force is revisiting as part of the approval of BC's Institutional Master Plan. Task force member Denis Minihane owns property on Washington Street which he leases to BC to house its Boston College Neighborhood Center -- a center that BC touts as part of its Article 80 community benefits (page 13-9). And Councilor Ciommo's son recently was offered admission to BC, where he will be eligible for one of the Allston/Brighton Scholarships that would be part of the continued Article 80 community benefits (page 13-2).

The Allston-Brighton TAB reported on a meeting of the BC Task force in June 2007 when task force member John Bruno stated publicly that his son was attending BC on scholarship. Yet no mention in the TAB of the scholarship.

It reported on another meeting in January 2008 meeting of the task force when Bruno also stated that there was called by an ethics investigator -- likely from the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission -- and that he would fight the investigation. Yet no mention in the TAB story of the ethics investigation.

The TAB had a reporter in the room in a January 2009 meeting of the task force when Councilor Ciommo acknowledged that his son had been admitted to BC, and that he might be eligible for the scholarship -- but that he was unaware yet as to whether or not he would receive it. Yet no mention in the story of Ciommo's statement.

Why doesn't the Allston-Brighton TAB report on controversial stories, like this one on potential conflicts-of-interest, brewing in the community they cover?

One theory is that they try to avoid personal issues like these might be, even though they are alleged conflicts-of-interest among both elected officials (Councilor Ciommo) and part-time/volunteer municipal employees (the status of task force members, who are appointed by Mayor Thomas Menino and charged with advising the BRA's Board on the BC IMP).

The issues here, however, were not whisper campaigns run by enemies trying to discredit them (though they may have started out that way). Instead, these were public statements (with the exception of Minihane) at public meetings in apparent attempts to set the record straight in public. Bruno volunteered the information on two different occasions, and Councilor Ciommo was open in responding to the issue when raised by a member of the public -- both presumably speaking publicly in a way to get their message out. Why not report what they said?

Well, in a way, they did. The TAB provided a link to the Globe story yesterday in their blog.

The editor of the Allston-Brighton TAB, Valentina Zic, responded by email stating that the paper did not brush off the conflict-of-interest issues that had been raised at the meetings of the task force:
TAB reporters have always been encouraged to cover the conflict between Boston College and neighbors opposing aspects of its expansion. The issue is a complex one, and, with limited resources, we haven't been able to cover every aspect of the conflict. But there's never been a concerted effort to suppress conflict-of-interest discussions that happen at task force meetings.
Another possibility, however, is more personal about the newspaper staff. The TAB employed just one staff reporter until last year (now they have only free-lancers). Their reporter for the first half of 2007, Karen Elowitt, was, at the time, dating the son of the chair of the BC Task Force. Yet she had five bylines in the TAB for stories about the task force, and that no mention was made about the reporter's connections in the paper. (Note that Elowitt had left the paper before those three subsequent meetings that formed the basis for today's Globe story, and hence did not report on them.)

Zic responded that Elowitt had notified the paper of her potential conflict over reporting on the task force, but that the paper decided that she would be able to report fairly on the topic.

When covering community news, it may be difficult to find reporters with no inter-connections with their subjects, but isn't that why you might hire the occasional free-lancer to step in?

The issue is serious enough that Councilor Ciommo told the Globe reporter that he had filed paperwork with Boston's City Clerk about his potential conflict-of-interest with BC over his son's admission and possible scholarship. That sounds like a tacit admission from the councilor that this is a serious issue, not one to be brushed off as desperate ploys by opponents of BC's plans to build dorms and stadiums on the former St. John's Seminary land.

My personal opinion is that the TAB pulls their punches when reporting on local stories of a personal nature. People can get very defensive about stories that might be viewed -- rightly or wrongly -- as personal attacks; all you have to do is read the comments posted to the Globe's story at their website. The problem is that they showed excessive caution when a task force member -- appointed by the mayor to a governmental advisory body whose purpose is to advise the BRA on a $1 billion development project -- admitted that he had been contacted by an ethics investigator about a possible conflict-of-interest. That was enough of a red flag that warranted a story in the TAB.

Image of sculpture "Whispers" [by Stephen Weitzman] by takomabibelot provided through a Creative Commons license.

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