A Maricopa City Council member who works for — and owns part of — a local news outlet is under a cloud of ethical questions because of his twin jobs in government and media.
Vincent Manfredi, a first-term council member up for re-election this fall, owns a 20 percent stake in the local news outlet InMaricopa, where he serves as the advertising director. Manfredi plans to acquire a majority stake in the company within the next several years.
Manfredi's stake in the local news outlet — a monthly print magazine with a circulation of 22,500, one editor, and two staff reporters — came under scrutiny after he joined the advertising department in January 2017. He recently had to apologize after he insulted a Pinal Central-Maricopa Monitor reporter who questioned Manfredi's dual roles of elected city official and InMaricopa employee.
"They’re just trying to dig stuff up," Manfredi said in an interview. "There’s nothing there. If I did something wrong, I did something wrong, but I don’t see it."
Maricopa is a city of 45,700 people located approximately 30 miles south of Phoenix. Manfredi is one of seven city council members, including the mayor, who are elected to four-year terms.
In a February 22 opinion article, Maricopa Monitor reporter Bethany Blundell criticized a decision by InMaricopa and the Maricopa Chamber of Commerce to hold their own town hall-style candidate forum instead of going with the usual forum including InMaricopa, the Monitor, and the Chamber as joint sponsors of the event.
With Manfredi as advertising director, the councilman and InMaricopa "will likely profit off a debate in which that company controls the tone and direction of the event," Blundell wrote in the February 22 piece.
"Not only is this unprofessional, it is unethical as well," she continued. "The original intent of these debates was to show how much we valued our democracy; however, it has now become a power play by people with conflicts of interest."
When meetings between InMaricopa and the Monitor to address the forum turned cold, the chamber dropped out as a sponsor, according to former Chamber of Commerce President Terri Crain, who resigned last month.
“It became a social media pissing contest about who was right and who was wrong, and the Chamber was drawn in the middle of it,” Crain said. “And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Blundell also wrote that Manfredi uses his city council position to feed breaking news and information to InMaricopa reporters.
In response to the opinion piece published in the Monitor, Manfredi called Blundell "unethical and a liar" on Facebook. He later apologized and deleted the language.
Defending himself on Facebook, Manfredi said that he has disclosed his role at InMaricopa with the city. He called Blundell’s article a “hit piece.”
“She is trying to avoid her journalism ethics code which demands she does not lie in stories and only posts verified and proven allegations,” Manfredi wrote. “I believe she is [a] pawn (which has since been made more clear to me) in a bigger game to hurt me and my business,” he added.
Shortly thereafter, Maricopa City Councilwoman Julia Gusse filed an ethics complaint against Manfredi for disparaging Blundell, but withdrew the complaint after Manfredi apologized to Blundell in a Facebook message.
Although he regrets calling Blundell a liar, in an interview, Manfredi again implied that Blundell was unethical for not contacting him before she published the opinion piece.
"You call and you ask questions," Manfredi said. "She never did it. So that’s why I said the word unethical.”
He also denied that he uses his position in government to help his company.
"If there was damning evidence in there of some sort of conspiracy, I’m pretty sure it would’ve been posted by her," Manfredi told Phoenix New Times.
After posting his tirade about Blundell, Manfredi changed his Facebook page's name from "Vincent Manfredi - Maricopa City Council" to "Vincent Manfredi - Maricopa, Arizona" as "a point of clarification that I don’t speak for council, I speak for myself," Manfredi explained.
Based on emails she obtained through a records request, Blundell said she found that Manfredi tipped off InMaricopa editorial employees to mundane local events or tidbits about things happening in the city, and on occasion related significant newsworthy items.
“There are a few instances where he forwarded them updates on big construction projects that we have going on here in the city that I definitely didn’t have access to,” Blundell told New Times. “There was one instance where they were given a brief by the Maricopa Police Department.”
When asked if he definitely does not give InMaricopa privileged information to the detriment of other news outlets, Manfredi said, "As far as I know."
He said that he couldn't recall providing information related to police activity or construction.
"I haven’t seen anything or remember anything in which I gave out any information to anyone, including InMaricopa, that was privileged, confidential information as a council member that wasn’t available to anyone else," he said.
The editor of InMaricopa, Raquel Hendrickson, denied that Manfredi feeds their team information from the city council. In a February 22 response to Blundell’s opinion piece, Hendrickson called Blundell’s story “an attack on InMaricopa filled with unsupported conspiracy theories stated as fact.”
In an interview, Hendrickson said that privileged or non-public information does not come from Manfredi to InMaricopa. Blundell’s assertion had the effect “to undermine our newsroom,” Hendrickson said, “saying we were incapable as reporters to get the job done and get these facts and this information by working our sources.”
Nevertheless, Hendrickson admitted that Manfredi will send them information on things happening in the community. “He has always given us information because he’s a citizen and he’s involved in a lot of stuff,” Hendrickson said.
She said that Manfredi’s twin roles at the city council and his position as an InMaricopa staffer is merely “a perception issue,” and has no impact on newsgathering.
“We frequently get a lot of stuff before he does,” Hendrickson said. “He would send me something, and I’d say, yeah, we got that two days ago from a real source.”
InMaricopa's article on Manfredi's Facebook comments noted that he is a minority owner of the news organization. But at least two articles on city hall written since he became advertising director do not mention his ties to InMaricopa. Manfredi is quoted in both stories.
Hendrickson said that they treated these two articles involving Manfredi like any other story because they relied on Manfredi's public statements made during open meetings, whereas the article on the ethics complaint included a disclosure because it was the only story to date where InMaricopa has interviewed Manfredi.
Hendrickson added that they may alter this policy going forward.
The city has also examined Manfredi’s ties to InMaricopa. Through another records request after the candidate forum imbroglio, Blundell obtained a legal memo written by Maricopa City Attorney Denis Fitzgibbons six months after Manfredi joined InMaricopa.
In July 2017, Fitzgibbons wrote that because Manfredi is a public officer, he should not use his position or the resources of his office to promote his business interests. Manfredi's stake in a news outlet raises three potential concerns under state and municipal ethics law, Fitzgibbons said.
“Councilman Manfredi could act as a source of information and commentary for his own publication in a more efficient or exclusive manner that would privilege InMaricopa above other constituencies vying for information or access from the City,” Fitzgibbons wrote.
He also said that Manfredi could also potentially use his position to direct advertising purchases to InMaricopa, or request that other city officials “perform actions that demonstrate or imply bias toward InMaricopa.”
Some criticized Blundell's decision to pen an opinion piece as opposed to a news story, she said. But because the story involved her personally, Blundell decided that an op-ed was best suited to raise questions about Manfredi and InMaricopa.
Blundell said that based on the city own's legal memorandum, Manfredi, in his official capacity as a council member, shouldn't provide news or information to InMaricopa.
“In my mind, the legal memo does not say, ‘Hey, you can’t send them editorial content if it’s really important news or if it’s breaking news,’” Blundell said. “He just can’t send them editorial content. Or he can’t favor them any more than any other news entity in the city.”
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The Monitor is one of eight publications in the Pinal Central newspaper chain owned by Ruth and Donovan Kramer. InMaricopa's publisher is Scott Bartle.
Hendrickson said that they’ve discussed how to handle Manfredi’s government role at length and will continue to evaluate it as he acquires a majority stake of the company. “In the newsroom, you don’t want even the perception that there’s something odd happening,” she said.
InMaricopa opted to host its own candidate forum this fall for a variety of reasons, Hendrickson said, and invited the Chamber of Commerce to be a presenting sponsor. In her response to Blundell, Hendrickson argued that the new format will allow them to reduce the role of the media as a “showpiece” and moderator.
“Whatever the personal politics of its owners, InMaricopa has never picked political sides and has never endorsed any candidate for office. Our aim is to let all sides speak when they are willing to talk, and let the voters decide,” Hendrickson wrote. “Much of the Monitor’s attack on InMaricopa had little to do with the debates but personal grudgingness over media competition and hypothetical access.”