Trial By Media (Part II)

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The Attorney General's Office mailed the application for COBRA to Vasquez. The routine form asked for her signature to extend coverage.

The correspondence, a copy of which is on file at the Attorney General's Office, is devoid of the usual insurance jargon. It could not be more straightforward.

"By Federal Law [COBRA], you are entitled to extend your group health plan coverage due to the fact that you have reached one of the five qualifying events that requires the State to extend your group health plan coverage," reads the opening sentence of the letter.

Vasquez claimed that she was told by someone in the Attorney General's Office, over the phone, that her insurance had been canceled.

Kim Bidle, the orientation/benefits specialist who handled Vasquez's insurance, denies Vasquez's story.

And the explanation from Vasquez--that she had been told orally her coverage had been canceled--is hardly satisfactory.

Vasquez had been a legal secretary for more than 20 years. She knew enough to get to the bottom of the issue if, in fact, there was any misunderstanding about the COBRA coverage; the health care of her children, after all, hung in the balance.

And as Bidle's letter to Vasquez made clear, there was plenty of time to resolve any confusion.

"You have 60 days to complete, date, sign and return the enrollment form to my attention," concluded Bidle's letter.

As with much of her filing in the Attorney General's Office, Vasquez never took care of the paperwork needed to retain health insurance.

Yet the charge that Carey had personally denied her medical care would take on a life of its own in the press.

Journalists, ignorant of how the federal health-care program is administered, simply repeated the charge without ever determining its accuracy. It was considered enough to allow Carey the space to deny the allegation.

During the course of the year, coverage of Rob Carey's handling of the trust fund and his dealings with his former secretary Vasquez took on a rhythm as dependable as the lunar cycle.

A journalist would be leaked a document, or Vasquez would make a charge, and when Carey or Woods were asked for response, the prosecutors would go into a fetal position, offering little or no comment--thereby allowing the writer to whack them like piatas.

The year closed out with a holiday wrap-up that included two stories in the Arizona Republic about Deborah Vasquez and Rob Carey. The pieces were written by Bill Muller.

One story, played on the front page, detailed County Attorney Romley's focus on the Dash Inn restaurant and bar in Tempe; Carey was part owner of the business.

The Dash Inn article begged the question: In stories that stretched from June 8 to December 28, how was it that the substance of Romley's secret grand jury investigation appeared to be getting more press than the Phoenix Suns?

Muller demonstrated, however, that even when Carey provided documentation instead of simple denial, reporters already had the story written in their minds.

Even Carey's generosity was portrayed as suspicious.
On several occasions when the AG's Office hosted banquets--for example, Christmas parties and employee-appreciation luncheons--Carey donated the food from the Dash Inn restaurant.

Press reports accused him of profiteering by steering the commerce to his own business, an illegal act.

Not a single reporter bothered to check Carey's claim that the food was sold at cost. And if there was no profit, no law was broken.

Carey wrote checks for the cost of the catering out of his own personal account. He paid the Dash Inn so that his business partners were not stuck with the expense of his largess.

In an interview for this article, Carey's former business manager at the Dash Inn confirmed that they did not take a profit off the catering.

"The food was provided at cost," says Jim Skoda. "We didn't make a penny off of it; in fact, it was a pain in the ass. It was done as a favor to Rob, which is what I told the county attorney."

The second of Muller's December 28 articles told you everything you needed to know about the story's slant from its headline:

Like the Mark Flatten piece that kicked off the coverage on Rob Carey, Muller's article was full of wild distortions and half-truths.

But after months of reporting the story, there was absolutely no excuse for ambush journalism. If the topic merited stories during such an extended period, then someone like Muller had an obligation to do more than lob a mortar shell of allegations into the attorney general's slit trench, and then call Carey for comment on the carnage.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey

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