Daily Archives: June 12, 2009

Duck, and cover up

Evasive maneuver:  A well-coached Fulton school board member with Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Evasive maneuver: A well-coached Fulton school board member with Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

There are many things to like about Wendy Saltzman’s WGCL series on wasteful spending in the Fulton County school system.

First, the money is substantial.  Saltzman convincingly reports that Fulton’s school system rigged its bidding process so that Office Depot could land a contract for school supplies.  Office Depot’s bid was nearly $1.6 million higher than the lower bidder.

Second, it passes the stink test.  Saltzman uses grade-school math to demonstrate that Office Depot is charging Fulton Co. substantially more than what the general public would pay for pencils, copiers, paper, binders and other supplies at an Office Depot store.  This is in stark contrast to other TV “investigations” into government “waste” that can’t get the math right, or don’t even try to calculate it.

No answers:  Susan Hale, Fulton School system

No answers: Susan Hale, Fulton School system

Third, there’s the astonishing hubris on the part of Fulton County Schools, whose spokeswoman laughably dodges Saltzman’s tough, yet entirely predictable questions about the contract.  The spokeswoman, whose name is Susan Hale, deserves enshrinement in the Stonewalling Hall of Fame.  She also deserves a pink slip from the school system she so poorly served.

Hale’s is a classic how-not-to for publicists and media relations personnel.  Her machinations gave Saltzman a perfectly good reason to double her output on this story, producing parts three and four on the silly Looney Tunes-style evasions of the public officials who voted for the contract.

The evasions potentially raised even more suspicions.  Saltzman didn’t say it, but this contract probably deserves the attention of a prosecutor.

Parts three and  four were pure entertainment.  In part three, Saltzman showed up at a school board meeting.  When the meeting wasn’t gaveled into session, Saltzman and her photog bum-rushed the elected officials, as any member of the public is entitled to do at a public meeting.  Saltzman showed board members embracing police officers and running to the rest room to avoid answering questions.  It was pitiful, and entirely fair game for WGCL.

They pay her to write this stuff:  Hale's e-mail

They pay her to write this stuff: Hale's e-mail

In part four,  Saltzman acquired an e-mail Hale wrote to school board members prior to that meeting.  Instead of advising school board members  how to handle the issue, she gives them tips for avoiding Saltzman and her photographer.

  • She will try to surprise you and catch you off-balance… It will be tempting to try to answer her questions — she will try to ‘bait’ you and get you riled up.
  • “…keep from saying anything on camera that could come across as flustered, nervous or guilty-looking.”

Not only did Hale fail to respond to WGCL’s questions, but she did an enormous disservice to her bosses.  By advising them to avoid Saltzman’s questions, she put the school board members in the exact position she strove to have them avoid:  Appearing flustered, nervous and guilty-looking.

What Hale failed to understand is this:  The story won’t go away just because she and her chums don’t want to talk about it.  The best way to handle bad news is with honesty and directness.  She finally figured that out Thursday, when Superintendent Cindy Loe and School Board Chairman Linda Bryant talked with Saltzman, wherein they admitted the Office Depot contract was fishy.  This gave WGCL fodder for a fifth piece in the investigation.

By making a public admission of the obvious, the Fulton County School Board may be able to avoid mobs of torch-bearing parents demanding their heads.  Loe told Saltzman that Office Depot is refunding the overage uncovered by WGCL.

Saltzman is tenacious and rather fearless.  Her output is extraordinary, wasting no time putting material on TV when it’s ready.  In part four of this series, she even employed a welcome touch of humor.  The goofy spectre of school board members running from her camera certainly deserved it.

WGCL deserves credit for a top-notch piece of investigative reporting, made even more entertaining by the boneheadedness of its target.  Grade:  A