Josh Bernstein of ABC-15 Ripped by Boss in E-Mail; Told to Cover Sheriff Joe Arpaio More Aggressively

Yikes. We're working overtime today to make sure the boss doesn't send us a memo like the one Josh Bernstein over at ABC-15 recently received. To paraphrase:

Stop smooching Sheriff Arpaio's rear-end and start kicking it.

As New Times writer Sarah Fenske pointed out in today's cover story, Bernstein basically chugged the tainted Kool-Aid fed to him about supposed corruption tied to the construction of a new Maricopa County court tower.

Bernstein's boss, ABC15 News Director Joe Hengemuehler, may or may not have minded the pro-Arpaio and pro-County Attorney Andrew Thomas slant the TV reporter took on the court tower story.

But Hengemuehler apparently expected Bernstein to chase down stories less favorable to the sheriff with similar zeal -- stories like the one last month about Arpaio's alleged abuse of power being the subject of a federal grand jury investigation.

As Hengemuehler explains in this January 8 memo leaked to New Times, the station wants Bernstein to follow the story and turn up the heat on Arpaio:

The above copy is hard to read, so here's the transcript:

Subject: Arpaio Coverage


This note is a follow-up to the meeting we had this morning.

Please take a look at the aggressive reporting that two of our competitors are doing on the Arpaio story. These stories were produced yesterday. And please note that both reporters who produced deep packages on Arpaio are out of their station's investigative units.

As discussed this morning, I want you to own this story. I want you to be as aggressive about covering the Arpaio story as you are about covering any other story. You've told me that you've told the Sheriff that you are going to come after him when there's a story. That time is now.

Most of all Josh, I don't want to get beat by anyone, print, broadcast or online on this story. And I do not want our investigative brand to be diminished in any way.

We have some ground to make up on this one. Let's start today -- by advancing this story and let's exhaust every angle going forward.

You are very good at digging and uncovering. Let's get that shovel out.

I am assigning Nicole to work with you.

Also, Josh, thank you for sharing with me your discomfort with how you say Dan Wilson spoke to you in the editorial meeting.
I will also follow up on that.


Bernstein responded with:


I will persue (sic) this story the same way I persue all stories.

Bernstein then goes on to describe the mostly unsuccessful efforts he made in trying to contact the various players for that story. Fortunately, Bernstein cc'd the e-mail to county officials, one of whom put it in our hands.

We're not sure whether Bernstein's latest efforts have been fruitful. A January 14 article about ongoing testimony to the grand jury by county officials published on the ABC-15 site is attributed to staff and wire reports.

Bernstein had much more success on the court tower story. So much, in fact, that Andrew Thomas has publicly praised Bernstein for his reporting -- a fact Bernstein takes pains to note in a June 11 report:

During an exclusive interview with ABC15, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said, "I really do want to commend Channel 15 for having the courage to go forward in the face of all this opposition."

Bernstein also notes in the same story that:

... ABC15's investigation into the court tower took center stage at an Arizona State Senate subcommittee hearing focusing on government transparency.

"The County Attorney has not been able to get any information. The Sheriff has not been able to get any information. The treasurer has not been able to get any information. The only one who's been able to get anything is Josh Bernstein with ABC15," Royce Flora, Maricopa County deputy chief treasurer, testified before the committee.

But what did he get?

Last year, as Fenske notes, the Sheriff's Office submitted a massive records request to the county for documents related to the planned construction of the court tower. A few days later, Bernstein made a similar request.

When the county produced a mountain of documents at a cost of about $80,000, officials estimate that Bernstein only spent an hour or so looking through them. Most of the copies he requested were of photos of county officials on trips to Philadelphia to look at a new courthouse.

As a May 15 report from Bernstein states:

ABC15 has learned that not all the money is going towards construction.

Back in February of 2007, 15 county officials traveled to Philadephia and New York to tour the courts.

The trip included sightseeing and expensive dinners along the way, but the county could not tell us who exactly paid the travel or the food.

Maricopa County's Presiding Judge, Barbara Mundell, who was part of the trip and played a major role in the court tower project, declined our repeated requests for comment.

We don't have a problem with Bernstein's facts here. But what he didn't report is crucial:

Dave Hendershott, Arpaio's chief deputy, also flew to Philly at taxpayer expense to see that town's new courthouse. So did Sally Wells, Thomas' chief assistant.

Maybe instead of getting out his old shovel, he ought to buy one that works better.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern