California to reform school bond practices

By Joel Thurtell

California legislators are poised to enact a law meant to reform the way the state’s school districts borrow through Capital Appreciation Bonds.

Cabscam California was reported first on joelontheroad, which made the 1000-plus percent interest as proportion of principal in San Diego’s Poway schools a poster child for the evils of CABs.

While the proposed law would place limits on the way CABs are issued and would put a ceiling on interest, it would not ban the practice of high-interest borrowing my California municipalities.

It would still be possible for school districts to borrow at rates of interest as proportion of principal that so infuriated Michiganders 20 years ago that the Michigan Legislature outlawed CABs. The Michigan ban resulted from my reports in 1993 on how schools were turning increasingly to this “creative” form of finance with the false promise of “no new taxes.”

Taxes were only postponed by 10 years, with interest meanwhile compounding at times to nearly 600 percent as a proportion of principal.

In California, CABs would be allowed with interest as proportion of principal up to 400 percent. That is still an outrageous amount to charge. It sure upset people in Michigan when they found, or instance, that the $19 million borrowed by Lowell schools in 1993 would turn into $93 million when it came to make payments in 2003.

I warned of this failing in my speech May 10 to the California League of Bond Oversight Committees.

I realized after my visit to Sacramento that, while it worked in Michigan in 1994,  state-by-state reform of muni bond practices is not the way to kill CABs.

A federal ban on CABs similar to Michigan’s is the best way to approach reform of this nefarious form of muni debt.



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Arming the Free Press newsroom

By Joel Thurtell

Detroit Free Press politics editor James Hill carries a pistol.

Hey, James — are you packin’ that gat in the newsroom?

It’s one thing to fend off attackers by pointing to your holstered pistol at a gas station.

But in the newsroom of a newspaper?

Well, I can see some sense to it: Your attackers might be enraged reporters and photographers. Not to mention copy editors who assault reporters, photographers and editors alike with their petty corrections.

Editors equipped with sidearms might enforce some much-needed decorum on news staffs.

Arguments about story length, placement in the paper, the very choice whether to run a story or not might quickly be settled with a subtle glance by the editor toward the handle of his six-shooter.

Wouldn’t newsrooms be happier, quieter and more productive work places if there were less bellyaching by reporters about everything from lunch expenses to whose name goes in a byline? A simple tap on a holster by the metro editor might forestall outbreaks of incivility before they get properly launched.

Wouldn’t that be a happy improvement?

There was a reason why Colt named its famous revolver “The Peacemaker.”

And yet, for all its merits, I see a downside to unilateral editorial armament.

There is no mutually assured destruction in having editors ordering story trims at gunpoint when their minions are unarmed.

That is an unstable, unequal state that cannot last.

The balance of power will shift, inevitably, because concealed carry laws were not made only for editors.

If James gets to carry his piece into the newsroom, what’s to stop reporters, photographers, copy editors and maybe even copy aides and editorial assistants from obtaining concealed carry permits?

The result might be newsroom parity. The editor could tap his holster all he wants, but his reporters will point to their own pistols.

But parity is unstable, too.

Reporters won’t be packing wimpy 40-caliber jobs like the one on James Hill’s hip.

How about a .44 magnum? One shot from that butt-buster would end the career of a grizzly bear, let alone a whining editor.

Bazookas, flamethrowers and howitzers anyone?

With an all-out arms race, editors could no longer count on a simple demonstration of weaponry to have their way. A reporter assigned a stinky story might do more than simply glance down at his or her holster.

“What? You want me to write obits for the rest of my career? How about a whiff of forty-five?”

Next thing you know, the affronted reporter has drawn her Glock.

My God! She’s aiming it at the editor!

Will he draw?

Will he back down, a sniveling coward?

Free Press editors do not retreat.

Whether the dispute is over a reporter’s claim for martinis at lunch or an order to re-write a story, a line must be drawn.

Discipline, order.

In its storied history, reporters from the Free Press once commandeered a National Guard tank and aimed its cannon at the rival Detroit News.

If James Hill has his way, the enemy will not be The News. This will be civil war within the Free Press.

The Free Press will need more than one tank, but even a regiment of tanks will be useless if reporters get their hands on cruise missiles.

Imagine a dispute in the Free Press cafeteria.

James “Han Solo” Hill is seated at a table, quietly munching a mayo and pickle sandwich.

I like James Hill. He is a good guy.

The menacing shadow of a dreaded byline-hunter darkens his plate.

(The encounter is recorded by a Free Press surveillance camera installed after lunchroom workers complained that writers were pilfering napkins and plastic ware.)

Nobody likes byline hunters. They are despicable characters. The world could use fewer byline hunters.

We can only root for Editor Hill.

The video will hit You-Tube.

It will go viral.

The question will forever puzzle journalism ethics classes.

Did Hill shoot first?

What next?

Nukes in the newsroom?

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Crying wolf on the ‘chilling effect’

The dual revelations, in rapid succession, also suggested that someone with access to high-level intelligence secrets had decided to unveil them in the midst of furor over leak investigations. Both were reported by The Guardian, while The Post, relying upon the same presentation, almost simultaneously reported the Internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official provided it with the documents to expose government overreach.

– The New York Times, June 7, 2013, “US Says It Gathers Online Data Abroad”

By Joel Thurtell

This can’t be happening.

According to the Times, “someone” described by The Washington Post as “a disenchanted intelligence official” leaked to the media top-secret information about government surveillance of Internet communications.


Why, if we believe the media, all this hoopla about media surveillance has frightened government officials from leaking for fear they’ll be prosecuted.

It is what the media calls a “chilling effect.”

Now we’re told by the very propagators of the “chilling effect” concept that some intelligence official had the temerity to leak.

Brave fool he, or she.

Leaking in spite of the chilling effect!

These disenchanted officials need to stop this. Right now!

They are making liars of the media.

If people are still leaking to news reporters, what happened to the “chilling effect”?

Was it a lie put out by the media as part of a self-serving campaign to gain a constitutional right that doesn’t exist?

Protection of so-called confidential sources and the ability to refuse to testify in court cases are privileges long sought by the media as part of a campaign to enhance their ability to publish allegations without attribution.

And, yes, in some cases the allegations might be lies.

Lies that nobody can rebut because the liars — media — wouldn’t have to tell us who told them the lies.

That is what the so-called shield amounts to — protection against revealing who the media’s liars are.

Selling that elitist goal to the public requires that the media paint themselves as protectors of the public good. The public good requires there be government leakers who nobly come forward at personal risk to spill the beans. If those noble leakers stop leaking, so the media mythology holds, the public will suffer from not knowing about all the bad things the media have let us know the government is doing.

But if leakers keep leaking, as seems to be happening, then the “chilling effect” is revealed for what it is —  a piece of propaganda manufactured by the media to push their agenda.

The Times wants it both ways — there is a “chilling effect” which is scaring leakers into their holes, except when they come out of their hideouts to leak to The Times.




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Fox 2 plans re-do of 2005 Free Press canoe trek

Up the Rouge! Written by Joel Thurtell, Photographs by Patricia Beck. Wayne State University Press, 2009.

By Joel Thurtell

A reporter and a photographer paddling the Rouge River over five days in the first week of June, renting their canoe from a Milford livery and refusing help from establishment environmental and river friends groups. Their aim — an independent look at a little-noticed, much-maligned piece of wilderness in a highly urban setting.

Sounds like what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.”

Eight years ago, the Detroit Free Press sent a reporter and a photographer on that mission. I was the reporter. Patricia Beck was the photographer. Over five days — 60 hours — Pat and I bullied a canoe over or around 72 logjams, one dam and what was left of three other dams.

Joel Thurtell

Free Press readers got a two-day series of articles and photos that showed the reality of a river that 95 percent of the time was too laden with E. coli to be safe for human contact. The series won the Water Environment Federation’s 2006 Harry E. Schlenz Medal for achievement in public education. In 2009, Wayne State University Press published a book written by me with Pat’s photos: Up the Rouge! Paddling Detroit’s Hidden River. Up the Rouge! was a 2010 Michigan Notable Book choice of the Library of Michigan.

Now Fox 2 reporter Charlie LeDuff has arranged to rent a canoe from Milford-based Heavner Canoe  & Kayak Rental for five days starting Monday, June 3. 2013.

I’m surprised it’s taken this long for TV to figure out there is a great urban adventure story in the heart of Metro Detroit. But it takes more than a canoe to make this trip. It also takes time, and a willingness to make the sometimes strenuous effort needed to overcome obstacles in the form of logjams, a strong oppositional river current and the rise and fall of a river so “flashy” that its depth can change by 10 feet within 24 hours. Along the way, the Fox 2 team will treat television viewers to sights most people would never see otherwise. As it wends through some 127 miles of Detroit and suburbs, the Rouge and its tributaries are shielded from view by a tree canopy and often hidden by steep, slippery banks.

Sometime Monday morning, staff from Heavner Canoe are scheduled to deliver two canoes — an 18-footer and a 17-footer — to LeDuff and a cameraman. The plan is for the Fox 2 canoeists to put one of the canoes into the main branch of the Rouge River at Nine Mile and Beech in Southfield. They will have to decide whether they want the longer canoe for its greater capacity to store equipment, or the shorter vessel for its ability to maneuver over or around obstacles.

The pair will paddle downstream, heading for Zug Island where the Rouge meets the Detroit River. They will be followed by Fox 2 people on shore whose job, presumably, will be to photograph the duo from land and to lend a hand if the adventurers get into trouble. They may be surprised to discover that some parts of the Rouge can be problematic to access from land.

Pat and I did not have extra help. Heavner staff delivered a canoe to us at the start of the day and picked it up when we were finished. For those hours when we were paddling, we were on our own. No need to go into further details — read Up the Rouge! for that.

I first heard about this project late in April, when Charlie LeDuff called with a proposal that I take part in a kayak trip he was planning on the Rouge River. He’d heard that I canoed the Rouge a few years ago and had written a book about it. Was I interested in collaborating? It might help sell a few books, he said.

Well, I always want to sell books, and I like to encourage use of the Rouge. So I agreed to meet him on May 6. But I urged him to plan his trip for a later time when stream flows historically are lower. With its logjams, the Rouge is a dangerous place to canoe at any time, but more so at times of high water. In fact, even now I hope Charlie monitors the river level following the torrential rains of the last few days. If water is high, he might want to delay his trip in the interest of safety. Pat and I picked the first full week of June because, according to USGS stream flow charts, the river would have enough water to float our canoe but would not be swollen with spring runoff. If we waited till July, parts of the river might be too shallow.

Sounds like Charlie acted on my advice.

I suggested Charlie re-think his idea of using a kayak. We needed the open canoe for Pat to have easy access to her photographic equipment. Just as important, you can move in a canoe, and often that was necessary when we were obliged to haul the canoe over logjams. I can’t picture getting in and out of a kayak dozens of times at logjams.

Charlie has ordered a canoe from Heavner. Sounds like he listened to my advice on that point, too.

Apparently, he wasn’t sold on our idea of paddling upstream. Canoeists like to paddle downstream, getting help from the current. We did just the opposite, by design. The title of our book, Up the Rouge!, is based on our decision to paddle upstream, starting at the river’s mouth. It was Pat’s idea: Early explorers and settlers began at the mouth of the stream and worked their way upstream. As latter-day explorers of the Rouge, why not go up the Rouge? Turned out there was an advantage we had not considered: If you paddle downstream, you encounter ugly messes of debris and foam before arriving at a logjam. If you come to a jam from downstream, your approach to the jam is clean. It’s easier to see the challenge; it’s easier to maneuver the canoe’s bow against the jam and from that point begin the job of disembarking, lifting the canoe and working it over the mess.

I’m curious about why Charlie chose Nine Mile and Beech as a starting point. After five days of canoeing the Rouge, Pat and I took the craft out of the river about 9 p.m. Friday, May 10, 2005 just below the bridge over Nine Mile Rd. near Beech in Southfield. That is the point at which Charlie plans to put into the river. But Nine and Beech was never part of our design. We were aiming for Telegraph and Civic Center Drive in Southfield. But we were given five days for the project, and by the time we reached Nine Mile and Beech on Day Five, our time was up.

If Charlie read Up the Rouge!, he would know that for the last half mile or so downstream from Nine Mile the river was too shallow for the canoe. We got out and pulled it.

Here’s a thought, Charlie: If you launch the canoe at the bend alongside Southfield’s Beech Woods Golf Course, you can avoid a possible dense logjam at Hole Four.

Charlie may have forgotten something else I told him: After our 2005 trip, I purchased from Heavner Canoe the 13-foot aluminum canoe Pat and I used for four of the five days of our trip. The 13-footer is lighter and more easily lifted over or around logjams than the heavier 18-footer we used on Day One. Nowadays, Heavner doesn’t have 13-footers. Their shortest canoe is a 17-footer. I told Charlie we could use my 13-footer. He wouldn’t have had to rent a canoe — mine would be free!

The last I heard from Charlie was on May 3. He called to say he was too busy to see me and canceled our May 6 meeting. But he still wanted me to help plan his Rouge canoe trip and be on camera for parts of it. I suggested he call me after I returned from a speaking engagement in California. I urged him to think about going in June. He said he would call me May 15.

I suggested that meantime he might want to read Up the Rouge! for its detailed instructions on how to organize a Rouge River canoe expedition.

Hmmm. It’s June 1. No call from Charlie.

Guess Charlie doesn’t need me.

And yet….

Tell you what, Charlie — Here’s some more free advice. You want to go on a five-day Rouge River canoe trip, right? Well, bosses being what they are, you might not get all five days, given your downstream plan starting from Nine and Beech. This is a tactical error, Charlie. You have limited the distance you can travel to 27 miles maximum to the river’s mouth. What if the high water and fast current propel you to the river’s mouth before your five days are up? Are your editors going to let you paddle around Zug Island for a day or two looking at freighters and barges and blast furnaces? Or are they going to tell you, “Enough of this fun; go cover the murder du jour”?

If you want to get the max out of those five days, reverse your plan, Charlie. Why aim for Southfield? Aim for Beverly Hills! Better yet, Birmingham!

Start your trek at Zug Island, Charlie, and paddle your canoe Up the Rouge!












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Bait and switch for press ‘freedom’

By Joel Thurtell

Would some wise person in the media please explain to me how the government’s surveillance of The Associated Press’s phones translates into a new push for a so-called federal “shield” to insulate mainstream journalists from subpoenas?

Somehow, news of a government inquiry into leaks to The AP has morphed into an urgent need to extend non-existent First Amendment privileges to select reporters.

Who would benefit from this confusion?

Oh, I guess the same people who would have benefited if the US Supreme Court had bought their argument in the 1930s that the National Labor Relations Act guaranteeing union rights did not apply to newspapers because, so newspapers claimed, “freedom of the press” meant freedom from unions.

Or it might have been the same people who argued, again in the same time frame, that the First Amendment exempted newspapers from paying federal taxes.

At various times, newspapers have argued they should be exempt from child labor laws that would have regulated paper carriers, pure food and drug laws they perceived as a threat to advertisers, the Sherman anti-trust law that banned newspaper monopolies, and a post office law that required sworn statements — that is, the truth — about circulation.[1]

“It’s all about me” is the real core value underlying newspapers’ seemingly high-minded call for protection from subpoenas.

Newspapers and now, by extension, news media, would like the right to collect information from whomsoever they in their exalted wisdom deem a fit source without having to reveal to lowly mortals where their sacrosanct data came from. As with child labor, unions, taxes, food and drug laws, the news media would like to be subjected to a separate standard of quality which is no standard at all.

Is the source credible? Let us decide on our own, cry the media. We have the First Amendment, therefore, butt out.

Did we verify our source’s information by testing it against information from other sources?

Hey, we don’t have to do that. We are the media. Trust us — we have our standards.

What are our standards? None of your goddam business. First Amendment.

From a practical standpoint in news gathering, such a privilege relieves journalists of responsibility for making sure what they print is accurate. Oh yes, there still are libel laws, but when it comes to defamation, again thanks to press litigation, the government faces tougher standards of proof than regular folk.

It’s all about journalists — some journalists, that is — being somehow better qualified as citizens than the rest of us and therefore endowed with a special right not to respond to court demands for evidence.

I say “some” journalists, because the proposed federal shield law would exclude all but credentialed journalists. In other words, bloggers like me would go to jail for refusing to give up sources, but reporters from media outlets deemed acceptable by this nefarious bill would have a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

What makes a reporter from The New York Times or, say, my hometown Plymouth Observer, better than me?

Why do those “credentialed” reporters get to thumb their noses at federal judges when, other facts being the same, I would be sent to the slammer?

In my view, we all should be sent to the slammer for showing contempt of a federal court’s need for names or information.

I’m not in a bargaining position here. I’m not willing to shut up if the word “blogger” is added to the proposed legislation.

I just don’t see what makes a “credentialed” journalist somehow superior in moral or personal quality to ordinary citizens who are required to give evidence in civil and criminal cases.

And please don’t try to feed me that “chilling effect” garbage.

Show me evidence that the number of sources — leakers, whistle blowers — has somehow diminished as a result of government prosecutions. There is no “chilling effect” – for better or for worse, leakers with their own lofty or sordid motives will always be there for reporters.

In future columns, I’ll discuss why so-called “press freedoms” are derived from the “freedom of speech” part of the First Amendment, while the “free press” clause is an empty bag. And I’ll report on a singular case where the Obama administration has seen fit not to prosecute government officials who illegally leaked federal grand jury information to a reporter. Yes — I’ll be writing about the Ashenfelter-Convertino case again.

But first, will someone please help me understand how government surveillance of some AP phones equates to a sudden strident call for exempting mainline reporters from giving evidence that all other mortals are required to provide?


[1] Theodore L. Glasser, “Objectivity and News Bias,” in Elliot D. Cohen, Ed., Philosophical Issues in Journalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1992, p. 178. Branzburg v. Hayes (No. 70-85) and No. 70-94, 358 Mass. 604, 266 N.E. 2d 297, affirmed; No. 70-57, 434 F. 2d 1081, reversed., 1972,, pp. 8-9.






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We need a federal ban on CABs

By Joel Thurtell

According to California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, those school board members at San Diego’s Poway Unified School District who authorized bonds with a 10-to-1 ratio of debt to principal ought to be recalled.

“Stupid,” was Lockyer’s description of Poway’s 2011 Capital Appreciation Bond issue borrowing $105 million with a billion-dollar balloon payback.

Lockyer was keynote speaker at the second annual conference of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees Friday, May 10, in Sacramento.e

I was gratified that Lockyer mentioned recall. Guess who one year ago was calling for a recall of the Poway board — yours truly, the ever-restrained proprietor of joelontheroad.

As I digest what I heard from various CaLBOC speakers, I realize that reform of CABs should not be done piece meal. Yes, Michigan banned CVABs, period. But it’s evident that the Michigan model is not likely to be adopted elsewhere. It is too tough on the people who make their living screwing taxpayers with these monstrous debt-generators.

I’m calling for something else now: a federal ban on CABs.

California’s solution is a bill in the state Assembly that would ban CABs with a debt:principal ratio more than 4:1.

That is no ban at all.

I pointed out in my speech to CaLBOC that most of the CABs that enraged people 20 years ago when I wrote about Michigan CABs would easily pass the proposed California test. Yet those CABs had interest piling up at two, three, four and nearly six times principal.

That kind of payback may be great for investors, and certainly is terrific for the underwriters who sell the schools on issuing them. But they are terrible for the taxpayers who believe school officials’ lies that there will be no new taxes with CABs.

My conclusion: that we need a federal ban on CABs.

More soon…

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‘Michigan blogger’ to talk CABs to California

By Joel Thurtell

At 2:15 PM on Friday, May 10, I’ll be in Sacramento telling members of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees how I learned about Capital Appreciation Bonds in Michigan 21 years ago. I’ll talk about how bad CABs were for Michigan schools, and how our Detroit Free Press reports on prompted the Michigan Legislature to ban CABs.

I’ll also explain the chain of events that led me to write about California’s CAB problem.


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Ashenfelter-Convertino: Essential reading

By Joel Thurtell

A federal judge has ordered the Detroit Free Press to reveal the names of US Justice Department officials who illegally disclosed secret grand jury information about a former assistant US attorney, Richard Convertino.

Convertino has sued the Justice Department. He’s trying to learn which US Justice Department officials illegally leaked negative information about him for a January 17, 2004 Free Press story.

Four documents are basic to understanding the case involving a star Free Press reporter, David Ashenfelter, and the former federal prosecutor, Richard Convertino. The documents are:

I. Professional Integrity section of Detroit Free Press-Newspaper Guild labor agreement

II. “3. Attribution, unnamed sources” and “4. Confidentiality” in December 13, 1984 “Free Press Ethics Guidelines.”

III. “Confidentiality” clause of March 3, 2001 “Detroit Free Press Ethics Policy” in place January 2004.

IV. “3. WE PROTECT THE INTEGRITY OF THE FREE PRESS,” February 25, 2004 “Detroit Free Press Ethics Policy.”

I. No person employed by the Free Press shall, for any reason, prepare for publication material which is inaccurate, misleading or false.

ARTICLE XI, Section 1 – “Professional Integrity,” from Agreement between Detroit Free Press, Inc. for Detroit Free Press and Newspaper Guild of Detroit.

II. The December 13, 1984 “Free Press Ethics Guidelines” sent to “Free Press newsroom” from then Free Press Executive Editor Dave Lawrence preceded the March 7, 2001 guidelines. Here are excerpts related to confidential sources:

3. Attribution, unnamed sources:

Our readers usually are best served when we can identify news sources by name. We should work hard to identify the source(s) although there will be instances when the pursuit of truth will best be served by not naming a source. Sources will be named unless the reason not to do so is an overriding consideration. Except in a justifiable instance, we will not allow an unnamed source to use us to attack an individual or an organization. We will work hard to corroborate information from any unnamed sources. A decision to use unnamed sources will be made with teh advice and consent of a supervising editor.

4. Confidentiality:

Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not extend to journalists the absolute right to protect the confidentiality of news sources, reporters on their own cannot guarantee sources confidentiality in a published story. If a demand is made after publication for the source’s identification, a court may compel us to reveal teh source. In circumstances where the demand for absolute confidentiality is made as a condition for obtaining the story, that situation needs to be discussed with a supervising editor before a commitment is made. Trust works both ways — the editor must be able to trust the reporter, and vice versa.

III. Text of the “Confidential Sources” section of the March 7, 2001 Detroit Free Press Ethical Guidelines in force on January 17, 2001 when the Free Press published a story based on illegally-leaked information from the US Justice Department. The Free Press policy of December 13, 1983 that preceded the 2001 policy as well as the February 25, 2004 policy follow the 2001 policy that was in effect in January 2004:

CONFIDENTIALITY Because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not extend to journalists the absolute right to protect the confidentiality of news sources, reporters on their own cannot guarantee sources confidentiality. If a demand for absolute confidentiality is made as a condition for obtaining the story, that situation needs to be discussed with a department head or higher editor before a commitment is made.

More recently, the Supreme court has ruled that the First Amendment does not bar a breach of contract suit for damages when a newspaper breaks a promise of confidentiality. That breach can arise from disclosing a source’s name, inadvertently or otherwise, from too detailed a description of the source or from an inadequately disguised photograph.

These legal concerns suggest that unnecessary promises of confidentiality be avoided, and the need for the promise be weighed against its value.

In making such a promise, take care to avoid ambiguity. Keep the promise specific; a pledge to not use a source’s name is preferable to agreeing to make the source unidentifiable.

Also, take reasonable steps to insure a promise is kept: Make sure the commitment is known by supervisors and by photo editors and others who might inadvertently disclose an identity.

If a promise goes beyond the source’s name, consider reading the description back to the source to insure the source is comfortable with it.

If there appears to be a need to break a promise, seek advice from legal counsel.

Further on in the same document, the subject of confidential sources was addressed again:

SOURCES They should be named. We don’t use unnamed sources unless absolutely necessary to tell the story.

– When we’re forced to use unnamed sources, we must strive for multiple sourcing. When we can’t name a source, we must be as specific as possible about identifying the person, to attempt to preserve the credibility of the story.

– Avoid using the word “source” if possible; “person” is preferable.

– We must strive to explain each time to readers why we’re not naming a source. (The explanation doesn’t have to accompany the first reference to the source, but should be high enough to give the reader appropriate knowledge.)

– In finding people to quote in a story, whenever possible and appropriate strive for a diversity of sources — people of more than one race, age group, gender and geographic locations.

IV. On February 25, 2004, Free Press managers replaced the 2001 ethics guidelines with a 10-point set of rules for news reporting entitled “Detroit Free Press Ethics Policy.” The new policy was implemented five weeks after the January 17, 2004 Convertino story. Here are portions of the new policy dealing with confidential sources:


We name our sources. The use of unidentified sources in published material requires the approval of a managing editor or the highest-ranking editor available.





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Convertino case: Judge orders Free Press to name sources

By Joel Thurtell

Former assistant US attorney Rick Convertino’s lawsuit against the US Justice Department is still alive, despite a federal judge’s decision to let a Detroit Free Press reporter, now retired, off the hook as a witness in the ex-prosecutor’s federal whistle blower lawsuit.

Convertino is suing the Justice Department and Justice officials under the federal Privacy Act for disclosing to the Free Press secret grand jury information that he says destroyed his career.

Because US District Judge Robert Cleland allowed then Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter to invoke the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against incriminating himself by naming names, Ashenfelter is a dead end as far as discovering who the sources were. Cleland on January 15, 2013 ordered the Free Press to turn over to Convertino Ashenfelter’s notes, including e-mails and electronic files, and to make further effort to find other current and former Free Press staffers who may know who Ashenfelter’s sources were.

On June 22, 2012, a Washington, D.C. appeals court panel ruled that Convertino is entitled to pursue discovery in his Privacy Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice.

US District Judge Robert Cleland on January 15, 2013 ordered the Free Press to produce documents related to the Free Press sources and to provide a company witness to testify about Ashenfelter’s sources.

As a consequence of the judge’s order, the newspaper offered free legal services to four current and six former staffers who, the newspaper contends, may know who the reporter’s unnamed sources were.

In a January 28, 2013 e-mail memo, Free Press publisher Paul Anger asked the current and former Free Press editors if they knew the source or sources for then Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter’s January 17, 2004 Free Press story, “Terror Case Prosecutor is Probed on Conduct: Outcome of Investigation Could Give The Defendants a New Trial.”

The “terror case prosecutor” in the paper’s headline was Convertino, who had earlier filed a whistle blower lawsuit against the government. The civil suit was put on hold after the US Justice Department charged Convertino with obstruction of justice. A jury took four hours to acquit Convertino on October 31, 2007, whereupon he revived his civil lawsuit against the government.

The Obama Justice Department is prosecuting other government leakers aggressively. For example, a CIA leaker has been sentenced to prison. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted in the Valery Plame leak case. For some reason, Obama’s minions aren’t breathing down the necks of Ashenfelter’s leakers.

In a December 8, 2008 column, I quoted from the Free Press policy on confidential sources in effect in January, 2004: “If a demand for absolute confidentiality is made as a condition for obtaining the story, that situation needs to be discussed with a department head or higher editor before a commitment is made.”

In that column, gave this advice to Richard Convertino:

Dave Ashenfelter wasn’t the only one at the Free Press who knew the names of his federal sources. Why don’t you subpoena the people who edited his story?

I had some advice for Dave Ashenfelter, too:

It’s not too late, Dave — get a second legal opinion.

If Dave had sought other advice, he might not have had to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating himself.

A key question now is whether any of the 10 present and former Free Press staffers Anger queried was “a department head or higher editor” when the Free Press published Ashenfelter’s story.

The January 28 memo from Paul Anger is titled  “Court Order to Reveal Source(s).” It states:

As you may know, the plaintiff in Convertino v. United States Department of Justice, et. al, a civil case pending in federal court in the District of Columbia, is suing the Justice Department because he claims it violated the Privacy Act when it allegedly disclosed information about him to the Free Press. As part of his litigation, Convertino needs to find the person who gave secret grand jury information to the Free Press. The Free Press is not party to the litigation.

As part of the litigation, Convertino subpoenaed the Free Press, demanding information concerning the identity of a confidential source(s) for a January 17, 2004 article in the Free Press headlined “Terror Case Prosecutor is Probed on Conduct: Outcome of Investigation Could Give The Defendants a New Trial. The article is attached.”

“We opposed the subpoena but were recently ordered by Judge Robert H. Cleland to designate a corporate representative who can testify with regard to whether there is a current or former employee who knows the source’s identity.”

“In July 2006, you received a memorandum from the Gannett Law Department asking whether you knew the identity of the person(s) who provided, commented on, or confirmed the information attributed to ‘Just Department officials” in the article. You were instructed to contact a Gannett Law Department representative if you had such knowledge. You did not respond and the newspaper consequently concluded that you had no knowledge of the source’s identity.”

“In light of Judge Cleland’s recent order, I am responsible once again to inquire whether you have that information, i.e. whether you know that names of sources of information about Mr. Convertino in the article that appeared in the January 17, 2004 edition of the Free Press, and what information each such source provided to the newspaper.

If you have such information, especially considering the lengthy history of this litigation and the personal interests at stake, you may want to consult with a personal attorney who can advise you in this matter. In that respect, the Free Press has engaged Lee Levine, Esq. to be available personally to advise you (or any current or former employees) who wishes personal legal advice in this matter. Mr. Levine is copied on this message.

“The newspaper will pay for legal services rendered to you by Mr. Levine.

“If you do not know the name of the confidential source for the January 17 article or the information he or she provided, please confirm that fact in a reply email.

“If you do know that information, please send me a reply e-mail stating ‘yes.’ If you do that, we will follow up with you for more detail.

“Finally, because of a Court-imposed deadline, please respond to this message or contact Mr. Levine no later than 5 pm on January 28, 2013.”

JOTR note: the time on the Anger memo was 3 PM — two hours before the deadline. As a result, the deadline was extended to January 31.

On February 15, Paul Anger was deposed by Convertino’s attorney. Learn what the top manager of the Detroit Free Press said about use of confidential sources at the Free Press in a forthcoming JOTR column.

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Texas may ban CABs

By Joel Thurtell

In spite of all the uproar about high-interest Capital Appreciation Bonds and 1000-percent interest rates in California schools, the California Legislature has not outlawed these taxpayer ripoffs and may only limit their use.

In Texas, meanwhile, a bill has been introduced into the Legislature to ban CABs outright.

It seems that in Texas, as in California, schools are borrowing at 1000-percent interest rates.

According to The Associated Press, “A bill to eliminate the option has cleared a state Senate committee, and if passed by the Legislature, will allow Texas to join Michigan as the only two states to bar school districts from using the bonds.”

Michigan banned CABs in 1994, following publication by the Detroit Free Press of my April 5, 1993 investigation of Michigan schools; use of CABs.

The story of California’s CAB scam was broken on this blog starting on April 27, 2012.

I’ll be speaking about how I uncovered the Michigan CAB scandal at the annual conference May 10 of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees in Sacramento.



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