New elections effort yields results

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comJuly 22, 2012 

Two years ago, reporter Sean Robinson wrote an exhaustive three-part investigation into Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam.

In office less than two years, Washam was found by three county investigations to have abused his power, wasted government resources and retaliated against employees who disagreed with him. Much of Robinson’s story detailed lawsuits Washam was involved in before taking office.

Readers said they appreciated learning more about their elected official, but some also responded as Betty Balch of Lakewood: “After reading all three installments on Dale Washam, I sincerely wish I had been aware of all his misdeeds before helping elect him to the office of Pierce County assessor-treasurer.”

Another reader later offered sharper words: “The News Tribune must share in the blame for the Washam mistake. He was not an unknown to the political parties or activists when he ran. … All the TNT reporters had to do was ask.”

Readers similarly rebuked us in 2009 for publishing our investigation into Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht after he won election. Hecht eventually was found guilty of felony harassment and patronizing a prostitute and gave up his seat.

If only voters had know about Hecht when they voted.

The truth is, the TNT doesn’t have enough reporters to fully investigate every candidate for every office between filing week in June and the primary election in August. We must focus on races that affect the most people and candidates who appear to have a shot at winning.

It’s certainly not an exact science.

In the case of Washam, we incorrectly put him in the category of political gadflies – perennial, unsuccessful candidates who don’t get much coverage because we don’t expect them to win.

In the case of Hecht, we wouldn’t have known he was soliciting prostitutes without a tip that came to us after the election. No, we don’t typically follow candidates around after dark to be sure they’re not breaking the law.

This year, more than 150 candidates filed for offices that affect Pierce County voters. With only a handful of reporters covering elections, we decided to take a slightly different approach – setting a minimum standard of background checking for the races we cover.

We employed two interns – Leon Gonion and Eric Lint from the University of Washington Tacoma School of Politics, Philosophy and Economics – to help us.

Gonion and Lint are backgrounding candidates for county, Legislature, Superior Court and statewide offices. They are verifying military experience and education as cited by candidates. They are checking court records for involvement in civil and criminal cases. They are trying to verify employment and checking for liens against candidates or their businesses.

The latter is how we found that County Council candidate Ken Grassi owes the Internal Revenue Service back taxes. Interns turned the information over to county reporter Steve Maynard, who wrote a story two weeks ago.

We asked Robinson to run background checks on every congressional candidate within the range of our readers. That represents 25 candidates in four congressional districts.

Background searches lead to judgment calls. A candidate’s civil infraction years ago or a messy divorce file, for instance, might not merit a story. We have in recent years investigated matters such as these and decided not to write about them. We walk a fine line between disclosing relevant facts and needlessly invading a person’s privacy.

Robinson’s backgrounding turned up lawsuits filed by and against 10th District congressional candidate Stan Flemming. Robinson wrote about them in Saturday’s paper.

The lawsuits give a recent picture of Flemming’s leadership of a new medical school in Yakima, information we found relevant for a person running for Congress. The story was well-covered by The Yakima Herald at the time, but not in the South Sound.

Contrary to the statement Flemming made Saturday in a campaign email newsletter, The News Tribune story was not “a political hit piece.” We ran the same background check on every candidate for Congress, and his was the only matter of this significance we turned up.

We worked to get the story into the paper in time for people preparing to vote. We invited Flemming in to see an early version of the story, spent almost three hours going over the matter with him and reflected his comments in the story we published.

Even with our additional efforts, we cannot vet every fact about every candidate on your ballot. But we’re doing our best to arm local voters with the information they need to make reasoned decisions.

For more information about local races, see our Election Guide at thenewstribune.com/elections, type in your home address and read about candidates in your own jurisdiction.

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com
253-597-8434
Twitter: @TNTkpeterson

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