KTVK Reporter Carey Pena vs. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas

Channel 3's Carey Pena

By Ray Stern

My head is still reeling after talking last week to Channel 3 news reporter Carey Pena and Andrew Thomasites Jason Rose and Barnett Lotstein.

With Rose and Lotstein, confusion and spin is to be expected. Rose is the big-haired veteran political hired gun who often takes on tough PR cases like the ethically challenged LifeLock company or Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Lotstein’s a silver-tongued senior attorney at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, one of county attorney Andrew Thomas’ top guys and a holdover from the regime of Thomas’ predecessor, Rick Romley. (He “volunteers” for Thomas’ reelection campaign on his “own time,” he says).

But it was Pena who first contacted New Times to twist this muddy kaleidoscope. Earlier in the week, she’d prepared a news report about the county attorney that tried to connect Thomas, chairman of an anti-affirmative action citizens initiative (Prop. 104), to the hired felons and fraudsters who had gathered – and in many cases, apparently, forged – petition signatures for the initiative.

Pena says that just minutes before her report was broadcast on Wednesday, Lotstein called Pena’s boss, KTVK executive producer Illeana Garcia. Pena says Lotstein warned he would “out” Pena as the wife of a prominent defense attorney who not only represents people busted with child pornography, but is a supporter of Tim Nelson, Thomas’ opponent in the upcoming election, if the piece were to air.

Exactly what Lotstein said to Garcia could only be gleaned second-hand from Pena – Garcia wouldn’t talk to New Times. Weak.

Lotstein claims he just happened to be watching Channel 3 news about 5:30 last Wednesday when he caught a teaser for Pena’s 6 p.m. piece. It looked like it was going to be a “hit piece” on Thomas, he says, so he called the station – in his capacity as a “private citizen” -- to complain.

It seemed clear, Lotstein says, that Pena had crossed an ethical line – there was an appearance to him of a conflict of interest. Jason Lamm, who married Pena six months ago, donated $390 to Nelson’s campaign and had been quoted praising Nelson the week before in the Arizona Republic.

Lotstein suggests to New Times that Pena created her news report for political, not journalistic, purposes. However, he admits he doesn’t know whether Pena was motivated to slant her piece against Thomas out of any political feelings on her or her husband’s part.

He says he told the producer that Pena ought to disclose her relationship to Lamm “and if she doesn’t, people are going to know that she has this bias, because it’s common knowledge.” Lotstein says this wasn’t a threat, but a statement of fact.

The next afternoon, on Thursday, Pena was, indeed, “outed” as Lamm’s wife. Coincidence? Blogger Greg Patterson, a former Republican state lawmaker, posted an article on his Web site that connects Pena to Lamm through their wedding registry. Patterson lays out the Thomas campaign’s side of the story pretty much as Jason Rose had been selling it to me that very morning. And Rose e-mailed me Patterson’s article soon after it was published. Patterson sums up his feelings (and Rose’s and Lotstein’s) with this question:

What's Channel 3's ethics policy about reporters writing hit pieces about one side of the campaign while the reporter's husband writes checks to the other side of the campaign?

Now, it could be that Patterson came up with this on his own. In fact, he takes pains to describe how he came up with it on his own. Lotstein tells me he never talked to Patterson.

But I asked Thomas’ campaign guru Jason Rose repeatedly whether he, Lotstein or anyone from the campaign had tipped off Patterson. Suspiciously, Rose refused to answer the question.

There were other problems with Rose’s take on the pissing match. The morning before Pena’s piece aired, Rose’s PR firm, Rose and Allyn, had put out a press release that basically uses Jason Lamm’s name to whack on Tim Nelson.

“Self-Described Best Child Pornography Defense Attorney in Valley Endorses Tim Nelson,” the headline blared.

Lamm was singled out even though his name had been printed already in another Thomas campaign press release on September 9. That day, Thomas had held a press conference and blasted Nelson for taking so much money from defense attorneys. Lamm’s name was listed among the attorneys that offended Thomas.

When contacted by New Times about the Pena/Lotstein situation, Rose claimed Pena’s news report may have been in retaliation for the Wednesday press release Rose had put out about her husband. Reminded that Pena had been working on her story for days before the Wednesday press release about Lamm, Rose changed his tune and claimed Pena’s supposed retaliation was for the older, September 9 press release.

“She is arguing the story’s timing is coincidence? C’mon,” Rose wrote in an e-mail to New Times.

Rose later compared Pena’s alleged bias with that of Rob Koebel, a KNXV Channel 15 news reporter fired in 2004. In that sorry chapter of Valley journalism history, Koebel made a donation to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s campaign and soon received an exclusive story tip from the sheriff’s office that smeared Arpaio’s opponent.

Another amazing coincidence: About the same time New Times received the e-mail about Koebel from Rose, Patterson updated his blog to draw the same comparison between Koebel and Pena. [Patterson’s blog doesn’t have a time stamp, so I can’t tell which came first, the e-mail or the blog update. But c’mon.]

Pena’s piece did have a glaring problem in its not-so-subtle attack on Thomas. The fact is, the sub-contractors hired by the campaign of Proposition 104 – on which Thomas served as chair – also gathered signatures for other initiative campaigns. Proposition 104 was one of several that didn’t make it onto the ballot this year because of problems with the petition signatures.

But Pena maintains her piece was legitimate news and her husband should be allowed to do what he wants to do, politically. She says she came up with the idea for the story after State Representative Kyrsten Sinema filed a lawsuit over Proposition 104’s bad signatures, and it had nothing to do with Nelson’s campaign against Thomas.

“I go at every story objectively,” she says. “The story was fair.”

Watch it yourself and decide.

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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