Daily Archives: October 29, 2008

Salacious but not scandalous

We’ll start by saying the obvious:  Richard Belcher is a better newsman in his sleep than we’ve ever been awake and fully caffeinated.  He’s the mac daddy of Atlanta investigative reporters.  He rarely missteps, but he did this week.  He should have left the Gena Abraham Evans story alone.

Evans is the DOT commissioner, known as Gena Abraham before marrying board member Mike Evans.  As a single woman, Abraham apparently had a rather normal personal life, which included a relationship with another DOT employee prior to Evans.  Abraham and that employee corresponded by e-mail, and some of their personal e-mails transacted through the state e-mail system.  This subjected them to exposure via the Open Records Act, apparently making them reason enough for an investigative report.

Belcher probably could have found personal e-mails sent by almost 100% of Georgia’s state employees.  Abraham had the misfortune of including some R-rated language in hers.  Mind you, nobody is saying that it’s scandalous to use earthy language in state e-mails.  But its inclusion certainly spices up a TV news story in the run-up to the November sweeps.  “This is the Bible belt,” Belcher reminds Abraham in their interview.  Abraham comes off more like the victim of a voyeur than a wrongdoing government employee.

The voyeur who pulled the e-mails is George Anderson.  Anderson has an almost obsessive interest in government ethics.  It makes him a bit of a gadfly.  But Anderson also plays a useful citizen role as a government watchdog.  In Belcher’s story, Anderson sniffs that it’s Abraham’s use of her on-the-clock time and state resources that troubles him about the e-mails.  Anderson sees the world of government in very black-and-white terms.   Often, he nitpicks out of a strict adherence to by-the-book principle that fails to account for the human element.  That’s what’s happening here.

Belcher bolsters the story somewhat by asking Abraham about the propriety of her relationships with other DOT employees.  But she answers credibly that there was nothing improper, and Belcher doesn’t challenge her response.

Nobody is seriously contending that government employees cannot use their state computers to send personal e-mails.  Aside from George Anderson’s complaint, why is this an issue?  It shouldn’t be.  Yes, maybe another news organization would have taken the same bait.  We wish Belcher would have been the one to say “thanks, but no thanks” to this.