Wednesday was a classic, a humbling day in the life of your friendly neighborhood TV reporter. It was humbling for two reasons: I spent part of it awkwardly stalking the governor of Georgia; and was doing so in pursuit of a story broken two days earlier by another TV station.
Monday, WAGA ballyhooed a big interview with Holly LaBerge, the embattled director of Georgia’s ethics commission. Mrs. LAF and I actually cranked up the TV set and sat on the couch, 1950s style, to watch the report on their 10pm news. I actually gasped when I saw the revelation of the memo LaBerge wrote documenting what she described as an intimidating phone call from the governor’s staff. Good story, Dale Russell, I thought. Damn your eyes.
Tuesday, the AJC appeared in my driveway with an “AJC exclusive” that had the same info as Russell’s story. The “exclusive” also cited Russell’s exclusive interview with LaBerge, thus broadening the already-overused word to include exclusive coverage of your competitor’s exclusive material.
Tuesday, I followed Russell’s story with no pretense to exclusivity. An Open Records Act request for the LaBerge memo was fruitful, as was my request to interview her attorney. (“I said my piece to Dale Russell” LaBerge answered when I phoned her, politely referring me to the lawyer. Damn your eyes, Russell.)
By Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal still hadn’t talked at any length about the memo and the allegation his office had intimidated his hand-picked ethics director. His spokesman gave me a vague “maybe, maybe not” response to my request for an interview.
So photog Steven Boissy and I wandered to the Capitol Wednesday morning. I’ve never really staked out the Capitol with the hope of having an unscheduled encounter with the Governor.
But that’s how Wednesday began. I believed that Gov. Deal was at an event but returning to the Capitol. I didn’t know whether he was traveling by car or helicopter. His SUV was absent from its usual parking space, leading me to believe he was probably in it.
Boissy and I hung around outside the Capitol, a building whose grounds have surprisingly little space for comfortable and inconspicuous loitering. We found a spot that might have allowed us to see Gov. Deal arrive by car, and waited.
There was no place to sit. The sun was shining and getting hotter. Our stakeout spot was out of eyeshot of windows to the Governor’s office, and away from Capitol police perches. One security guard walked past us but said nothing except “good morning.” We waited, maybe, thirty minutes. I felt ridiculous and conspicuous and spent much of the time figuring out a) what to say when somebody questioned why we were hanging around there, and b) what to do after this gambit failed.
Boissy and I read obscure historic inscriptions, noted the surrounding flora and observed the increasing intensity of the sunshine. We discussed varying breeds of cattle, a subject in which we both share a surprising interest.
Our smalltalk dwindled rapidly.
And then we heard a helicopter.
It bore down on the new helipad built atop the new parking garage across from the Capitol’s southeast corner. Boissy and I scurried over, and saw the governor’s SUV parked outside the garage at a door. His usual driver was behind the wheel.
The Governor exited the building. I didn’t bum-rush him, but called from a respectful distance and asked if he would stop to chat. “What about?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know.
“Our office has already issued a statement about that,” he said. I said I’d like to clarify some of what the statement said. “OK, sure,” he answered.
What followed was a four minute chat wherein he challenged the accuracy of my first question, then proceeded to interlace his answers with questions for me that seemed to challenge the veracity of LaBerge’s memo. He was lively and a bit more contentious than we usually see him. He obviously wanted to talk. The unedited interview is here.
Midway into our Q&A, I saw a WSB mic flag pop into view alongside mine. Richard Elliott had popped up, seemingly out of nowhere.
Elliott got what he needed without the indignity of the awkward stakeout.
Damn your eyes.