Thousands of untraceable searches, some of them into the personal information of family members and people with whom they had personal relationships, were made by employees of the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Plattsburgh. The NYS Inspector General’s Office a few days ago released the full report on the violations occurring at that office, and an article in last Friday’s Press-Republican (Plattsburgh) has left me livid.
I both enjoy and work hard at researching stories. Like most writers, I hate making mistakes, but when I make them, they are honest mistakes. I don’t attempt to distort or embellish―my preference is for interesting or unusual stories that stand on their own merit. It’s embarrassing and downright mortifying to publish an error, but it happens to most of us at some point. But we don’t blame anyone for honest mistakes.
HOWEVER, it is nothing short of dishonest to purposely distort a story, and I don’t give a damn if your newspaper name IS the Press-REPUBLICAN―it is lying to the public to purposely omit parts of a story to slant its meaning, and it’s an abuse of the public trust to intentionally omit key parts of a story to avoid soiling the reputation of a member of a certain political party.
I’ll state here that I don’t personally know Glen Olds (the Press-Republican story was primarily about him). Nor do I know Joe LoTemplio, the author of the piece. Actually, Joe was the co-author. I don’t see this often, but the Press-Republican’s editor, Lois Clermont (I don’t know her either), saw fit to share the byline with LoTemplio, possibly because this was a story of considerable importance. Or at least it should have been.
On the day their article appeared, I happened to have already read a “Summary of Findings/Recommendations” issued by the New York State Inspector General’s office. The report addressed charges that Glen Olds, former Clinton County Deputy County Clerk and also Supervisor of the DMV office in Plattsburgh, had “misused his position on several occasions to access the DMV database for purposes that were unauthorized and unrelated to his official duties.”
The story had surfaced back in 2009, and on the exact day in 2011 when real trouble (state investigators) arrived at his office, Olds resigned, thereby avoiding any punishment. I do recall the story, and the distinct impression left by articles published at the time was that it was an overreaction by the state; that Olds hadn’t really done anything terribly wrong, and he was a value to the community. Maybe so, but I don’t know him so I can’t make that judgment. And this story isn’t about him.
Now, three years after the story first broke, the state’s report has been released, and our intrepid Press-Republican reporters have surely provided the uninformed public with all the details, right? Not even close! Follow the link provided (above and below) and read their article. It fairly assures you that this was just a case of folksy local government officials breaking the rules, and for good reasons … to find out people’s addresses so birthday cards and sympathy messages could be sent. That is so noble! I swear, it’s like living in Mayberry!
Rest assured, Woodward and Bernstein (sorry, I mean LoTemplio and Clermont) sleuthed their way through some remarkable investigative reporting. Which means they read the 8-page report, spoke briefly to Mr. Olds, and then wrote a piece covering the facts in the vaguest of generalities, thoroughly avoiding stuff that would normally make a reporter’s mouth water.
I’ll quote their article and the complete statement of Mr. Olds: “After 17 years at DMV, Olds resigned from his position in June 2011, which precludes disciplinary action against him. Reached Thursday night, Olds said he never tried to do anything underhanded. ‘I felt I did the appropriate thing by bowing out, knowing that technically I broke the rules,’ he said. ‘But my intent was to serve the public. There was no hidden agenda on my part.’ ”
Now I’m no reporter, but I was stunned by what WASN’T in their story, and by the fact that they didn’t question Olds on the most important charges in the report.
But you be the judge. Are the following excerpts important to the story? To begin, try these two paragraphs from the official report. (The italics are mine.)
“When questioned by the Inspector General in July 2009, Olds acknowledged that he knew [Assemblyman Chris] Ortloff, but denied ever accessing the DMV database on Ortloff’s behalf. When asked specifically if he recalled Ortloff contacting him to request an inquiry in the DMV database, Olds responded that he did not. When asked if it were possible that Ortloff asked John Zurlo, the County Clerk, who in turn asked him, Olds again responded that he could not recollect any such incident.
“Olds’s denials are contradicted by phone records of his office desk telephone and Ortloff’s cellular telephone obtained by the Inspector General. Specifically, the records substantiated that three calls were placed between Ortloff and Olds on September 8, 2008, including one call that lasted two minutes and another several minutes later that lasted four minutes during the exact time DMV records confirmed that Olds accessed the investigator’s license plate.”
So, Joe and Lois, flat-out lying by a man holding two important county positions … and it’s not significant enough to mention in your article? Were the Ortloff and Olds phone records just not sufficient evidence for you to publish that information? And if they weren’t sufficient, you somehow concluded that the accused liar’s statement (“…technically, I broke the rules”) was plenty good enough to print. It apparently went unquestioned by you, leaving readers with the feeling that, gosh-darnit, another local good guy was squashed by big government.
Here’s the second excerpt, resulting from the fact that Olds admittedly provided all employees with his own ID and password (that info was actually fastened to their workstations by sticky notes).
“During the review of Olds’s access to the DMV database, the Inspector General uncovered that thousands of inquiries into the system were made monthly under Olds’s user name at the Clinton County DMV office. The Inspector General’s investigation revealed that Olds had instructed the four Help Desk employees to log on to the DMV system using his user ID and password. Therefore, not only did it appear that Olds made thousands of inquiries monthly, but it was impossible to connect a specific employee with any particular database inquiry.
“Four other DMV employees who were questioned about these unauthorized searches also admitted they used the DMV database to access information of family members and people with whom they had personal relationships.”
I was hoping that LoTemplio and Clermont would be intrigued or alarmed by the phrases “thousands of inquiries monthly,” and “they used the DMV database to access information of family members and people with whom they had personal relationships.” Or perhaps the idea of no accountability should have caught their eye.
That stuff sure piqued my curiosity, so I read on, confident that the juicy details had been uncovered and … What?!! Are you kidding me? None of it was even mentioned in their article? Well, I guess I was wrong. It wasn’t important or intriguing after all.
Those two excerpts were bad enough, but this third one left me thoroughly flummoxed … and PO’d. Read the following two paragraphs closely, all the while remembering that a political reporter and a newspaper editor deemed the information irrelevant to their story.
“Between August 2010 and June 2011, the Inspector General received a number of complaints from Clinton County DMV employees that Olds was continuing to access the database under user names of other DMV employees, which is prohibited. The Inspector General investigated these complaints and substantiated that Olds had used the usernames of several employees, including one who had retired and another who was on long-term medical leave, to access the database.
“The Inspector General learned that after Olds’s own authorization had been revoked, he obtained the passwords of these employees under the guise of assisting them with their work. The Inspector General identified a number of instances in which Olds, using these other employees’ logons, processed transactions, including some which had been properly rejected by DMV clerks. Records indicate that Olds began conducting these improper database accesses approximately a month after DMV had revoked his access privileges in September 2009, were occurring at the time he appealed to the DMV Commissioner for restoration of his privileges in February 2010, and continued for months thereafter.
Again, reporter and editor both felt that those offenses were satisfied by the response, “technically, I broke the rules.” Negligent, lazy, terrible, biased, extremely sloppy … at least one of those terms ably describes the article they came up with. They should be ashamed at the lack of effort.
If the Press-Republican did, in fact, limit their story to only the portions of the report that made a certain political party look “not so bad,” it’s an embarrassing and egregious abuse of editorial and publishing power.
On the other hand, if they assumed a totally bipartisan position in relaying the state’s findings to the public, it’s a shamefully inept and inexcusably pitiful effort. Either way, it stinks.
Tell me how wrong I am, please. But first, read the state’s report, plus the Press-Republican article addressing the report, and then tell me if you could have impartially come up with the same take offered by LoTemplio and Clermont. Disgraceful reporting … but they shouldn’t have any trouble finding work as cherry-pickers.