When the state Ethics Commission had its funding cut, it was a big story. It was also a tough story to tell, and to sell to a TV audience. It was about budget cuts — something happening at every level of government already. It was about bureaucracy — something that rarely captures the imagination. And on the day it happened in June, the story’s “bad guy” was nowhere to be found.
The cuts at the Ethics Commission gutted the state’s official ability to compile and investigate the finances of political candidates, elected officials and lobbyists. In a state with a rich history of corrupt political behavior, its de-fanging by the appointees of politicians was significant.
As part of my effort to advance the story, I made a phone call to Patrick Millsaps’ law office in Camilla. Millsaps is the chairman of the Ethics Commission, appointed by Gov. Deal. If the story had a bad guy, he appeared to be it. I got a secretary. She took my phone number and told me Millsaps was away on vacation. I didn’t expect to hear from him.
About a week later, my cell phone rang with a south Georgia area code. “Hi. It’s Patrick Millsaps.” I had long since moved on to other news, and it took me a couple of seconds to recognize his name. I immediately began a short, somewhat nervous impromptu pitch to allow him to “clear the air” about his role in the gutting of the Ethics Commission.
To my utter surprise, he was very agreeable.
He said that I was one of only two reporters who had left him messages during his vacation. The other one is a longtime Atlanta reporter who has produced several tough pieces about the ethics of Gov. Deal. I shan’t name the competitor, for whom I have mad respect.
As the conversation ensued, I got the impression that he intended to throw me a competitive bone. He would call the other reporter back, but later.
Newsmakers agree to interviews for many different reasons. Millsaps was, in fact, motivated to “clear the air.” He was charming and humorous. He made a reasonably convincing case, I thought, that he wasn’t doing Deal’s dirty work. Of course, I also think OJ’s innocent.
But in so doing, he appeared to also be sending a message to my esteemed competitor, who’d been much tougher on Gov. Deal than I’d been.
When Millsaps and I talked again last week about his decision to renounce his appointment to the Ethics Commission and step out of his chairmanship, the name of the competitor came up again. The competitor had called again. Millsaps was apparently satisfied with the interview I’d done, and chose to “break” the story about his departure with me instead.
A slightly uneasy feeling returned. I felt I had asked Millsaps all the tough questions about the budget cuts, about his relationship with Gov. Deal, and whether he was undercutting an Ethics Commission probe into Deal’s campaign finances. Yet he was willing to talk to me again before talking to the other reporter.
- As a sidelight, we had a conversation that went roughly like this:
- Millsaps: You know I’m not “resigning.”
- Me: I never said you were. I’m going to say you’re “stepping aside.”
- M: But I’m not going anywhere, so you can’t really say I’m “stepping aside.”
- D: Then how would you describe it?
- M: You can say that I’m “remaining until such time as Gov. Deal appoints my successor.”
- D: That won’t cut it. That’s too clunky, and you are taking an action that needs to be described. How about “renouncing your appointment?”
- M: Oh, gosh. No.
- D: “Abdicating the chairmanship” sounds too regal.
- M: Agreed.
- D: “Nullifying your appointment?”
- M: Maybe.
We ended up back at square one, using the phrase “stepping aside.”
Was he talking to me — and not my competitor — because he expected easier treatment from me? Or “fair” treatment? Are the two mutually exclusive? Would I be perceived as the guy who got a couple of decent scoops because this guy respected my work? Or because he knew I was a pushover, compared to my competitor?
I chose not to lose sleep over those questions. The answer, of course, is that he talked to me because I’m just that awesome. And I’m sticking to that.
You, too, may get evenhanded treatment from local news! Write me with your exclusive scoopage: apartmentfire (at) gmail.com