Is KPHO in Mark Spencer's Pocket?


Far be it from me to tell local CBS affiliate KPHO (Channel 5) how to run its newsroom, but the station's special relationship with the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the powerful union that represents rank-and-file Phoenix police officers, undermines KPHO's tag line of "telling it like it is."

Some cops even refer to KPHO as "PLEA TV," for its slant toward the union, and they peg reporter and former Phoenix Police Department officer Donna Rossi as the most friendly to the PLEA line. But Rossi isn't the only KPHO reporter who has done a story that suits PLEA's agenda to a T.


The Bird

Recently, I reported on Rossi's story regarding a survey done by another union, the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association ("Mark Spinner," February 24). Rossi flubbed that report so badly that she attributed one comment from an officer of "fire him" to be about Public Safety Manager (and once "Police Chief") Jack Harris.

(City Manager David Cavazos recently demoted Harris, in large part because of reporting by New Times' Monica Alonzo on the PPD's inflated border-related kidnapping stats. Every TV outlet in town now claims credit for Harris' suspension as chief pending a review by the city. But Alonzo was the first newshound to scrutinize the hundreds of reports in question, pointing out that only one in four had anything to do with such kidnappings.)

In reality, the "fire him" line was directed at PLEA president Mark Spencer, whom the same anonymous commenter pegged as the PPD's "single biggest challenge."

Indeed, there were numerous negative comments about Spencer as a divisive character, but Rossi neglected those, focusing solely on criticism directed at Harris and the Fourth Floor of 620 West Washington, where PPD command staff holds court.

Suffice it to say that the PPSLA was unhappy with having its "data dump" from the survey all over KPHO and PLEA's Web sites.

The union had not made the survey public, and PPSLA president Mark Hafkey believed the survey was swiped from his union's offices.

So PPSLA's lawyer fired off a letter to the station demanding a retraction, and a retraction eventually occurred, but you'll find no evidence of it on Channel 5's Web site.

Rossi's original heavily slanted story was still there in written form as this column went to press, though the video of the report since has been removed.

The PPSLA learned of the backpedal in a letter from KPHO legal beagle Perry Bradshaw. He informed the union that the station had corrected the original February 15 Rossi piece "in our 5:30 p.m. newscast on Friday, February 25."

To be fair, KPHO isn't the only news outlet that minimizes its retractions, and at least the station ran one, though not in prime time.

Maybe this wouldn't be that big a deal if it were a one-off, and if Spencer and PLEA were not such a menace in this city. But it's not a one-off, and Spencer and PLEA are a wrecking crew.

Another KPHO retraction occurred in May 2010. That one concerned PPD Lieutenant Joe Knott.

Knott had been picked to attend the prestigious FBI National Academy. PLEA pitched a fit, writing to the FBI and making accusations that involved claims of a hostile work environment and retaliation. PLEA's complaints proved baseless. PPSLA's general counsel demanded a retraction and got one.

Sure, news stories can be fluid and may shift over time. On the other hand, when a nefarious entity such as Mark Spencer's PLEA is whispering in your ear, the hatchet job that results is less likely to be a righteous kill.

Moreover, PLEA nearly is as successful in manipulating the mainstream media as Sheriff Joe Arpaio's PR flacks.

Take the case of PPD cop Richard Chrisman, indicted for second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to animals.

Chrisman is accused of shooting down South Phoenix resident Danny Rodriguez and his dog on October 5 after responding to a domestic-violence call. Rodriguez was unarmed but was high on meth and struggled with Chrisman. Sergio Virgillo, the other cop on hand, told investigators that neither Rodriguez nor the dog posed a serious threat.

Spencer and PLEA immediately sided with Chrisman, a PLEA member, against Virgillo, who is not. PLEA bailed Chrisman out and continues to argue passionately on Chrisman's behalf.

Indeed, PLEA has sought to slime both the victim and Virgillo in its defense of Chrisman. Before he left office last year, interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley told me that PLEA was under investigation for possible witness tampering and obstruction of justice as a result.

"I think there's a concerted effort by PLEA and some of its members to obstruct the success of this case going forward," Romley told me at the time.

In February, County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who bested Romley in the 2010 Republican primary after getting PLEA's endorsement, announced that the investigation of PLEA's actions in the Chrisman case had concluded.

"We have no evidence to pursue criminal charges against officials of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association," Montgomery stated during a press conference.

PLEA declared that it had been exonerated. But though the investigation may not have turned up evidence of criminality, a review of documents from it suggests that PLEA president Spencer was out to get dirt on Virgillo shortly after the shooting of Rodriguez.

Investigators suspected that PLEA had planted a story about the criminal record of Virgillo's wife, Maria, with KPHO. Maria had caught three years' probation for her participation in a drug-trafficking ring.

At the time, Sergio Virgillo was serving with the PPD's Drug Enforcement Bureau, from which he later was transferred. KPHO reporter Sarah Buduson mentioned in reporting the story, "To our knowledge, Virgillo had no knowledge of what his wife was up to."

Still, when anchor Sean McLaughlin introduced the piece, he said the story "calls [Virgillo's] judgment into question." Buduson echoed this sentiment in her segment.

Where did KPHO score this intriguing news nugget? The County Attorney's investigators phoned Spencer and asked him to come in for an interview.

They wanted to ask Spencer about internal PPD e-mails concerning two Phoenix city councilmen, Michael Nowakowski and Michael Johnson, who had telephoned Virgillo after the shooting.

According to the County Attorney's Office report, they also wanted to know why Spencer "contacted a Phoenix Police Department Drug Enforcement Bureau Detective and asked him to provide him with details of the investigation of Sergio Virgillo's wife."

The report notes, "Shortly after Spencer received this information, Phoenix Channel 5 News aired a detailed story about Officer Virgillo's wife's arrest and the investigation conducted of her."

But Spencer, who has no problem flapping his lips before a camera, refused through his lawyer to be interviewed.

PPD detective Ron Gomez did talk to investigators. Gomez is with the PPD's Drug Enforcement Bureau and, according to the transcript of his interview with the County Attorney's Office, he investigated Virgillo's wife.

Gomez informed investigators that about 48 hours after the Chrisman shooting, Spencer called Gomez on the latter's personal cell phone to pump him for info on Virgillo.

Gomez told him about Virgillo's wife, and he also told Spencer that Virgillo had been cleared.

The detective told investigators that the PPD did wiretaps on both Virgillo and his wife and came to the conclusion that Virgillo didn't know about his wife's criminal activity.

Was Virgillo run out of the DEB? Gomez told investigators that despite his belief that there was no wrongdoing on Virgillo's part, his commander felt it was in Virgillo's best interest to transfer him out of the DEB.

The detective gave props to Virgillo for standing by his wife. (The couple are still married.) And Gomez admitted that he had recently resigned from PLEA, offering that he was once a PLEA rep and that he had endorsed Spencer's run for PLEA president in the past.

"And since that time, I've had a change of opinion," Gomez stated.

Say no more, detective.

Did Spencer dish the goods on Virgillo's wife to KPHO to tarnish Virgillo's account of the shooting?

I called and e-mailed Spencer, asking him to call me back so we could discuss the matter.

He e-mailed me, writing only:

"With the same platform of honest dialogue utilized with Monica Alonzo and Ray Stern at New Times, PLEA's goal continues: to assist in the successful reporting of all our media partners both nationally and locally."

He did not respond to subsequent e-mails.

KPHO news director Michelle Donaldson returned my call and vigorously defended her station against the perception that it sometimes acts as PLEA's PR wing.

Donaldson insisted that PLEA was not the source for Rossi's flubbed story on the PPSLA survey. And she took umbrage at PPSLA president Hafkey's contention that the document had been purloined, pointing out that leaks happen all the time in the news business.

As for the retraction occurring on the 5:30 p.m. newscast, she contended that since Rossi's original story with the "fire him" statement occurred at 5:30 p.m., this was proper. She said the same day's 10 p.m. newscast did not include the "fire him" comment, so there was no reason to run a correction during that broadcast.

Why was the video taken off KPHO's Web site, then? Donaldson claimed it rotated offline on its own — even though older stories are still on the site. Something to do with the software the station uses.

"I ran a retraction in each newscast where that misattribution of fact was included," she insisted. "It wasn't included in our Web story, so there's no retraction there."

She was referring to the written version of the story, which is still up and carries the same spin, even if the "fire him" quote isn't mentioned.

What about the hit piece on Virgillo's wife? Did that story come from PLEA? She declined to inform me of the source.

Donaldson had no problem with the fact that Rossi is an ex-cop reporting on the cops or that Rossi covers a department she once sued, scoring a $45,000 settlement. This, over a flap my colleague Paul Rubin reported on in 1990 ("From Tough Cop to Talking Head," August 8).

She couldn't tell me whether Rossi had ever been a PLEA member.

"I don't know what that matters," Donaldson said. "She'd been a police officer for years."

It matters if your station is perceived as being in PLEA's pocket. You'd think Donaldson would be a tad curious about that.

"As a journalist, you know . . . we get used by people every day," she said. "At the end of the day, I want to know that the information is accurate and we're using it appropriately, but I'm not going to apologize for working as many sources as I can for information."

She's got a point about sources, though peddling PLEA's propaganda and getting "used" routinely ain't exactly the same as "telling it like it is."

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