“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” Maya Angelou
Reporters can’t please everyone and “blowback” is inevitable. That’s simply part of the job. Being an effective taxpayer watchdog requires a price to be paid. Freedom is not free and that is fine. Sometimes I do make mistakes, so I am open to correction and constructive criticism – mostly.
Moments before this year’s inaugural county Finance Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, I walked in to the conference room and found that the seat I normally sit at was occupied, so I asked if I could sit at a different seat. I asked, because though I have a right to be in the meeting, it is only by their generosity that I have been allowed to sit at the table. It was then that I was ambushed.
“As far as I’m concerned you can sit outside.” Judge Randy Carney snapped.
I paused in partial surprise. I say partial, because nothing truly surprises me anymore surrounding Carney. But I also thought that it might be a joke, because he has complained about my columns before and after all, Carney can be charming and playful.
I was then blasted with a tirade that included “If you weren’t a Christian I’d sue your butt” and “I didn’t like your column one bit”.
Oh well; he and I sit at the big boy table and disagreement is just part of the job. But no one would have predicted what was to happen. I recorded some of it – unfortunately I missed most.
“Don’t come back to my office either. If you can’t get it right you don’t need to come do the story at all,” County Judge Randy Carney said.
I then asked him if his office was off limits to me. He never directly answered but did continue.
“I’m telling you if you can’t write the truth, don’t write anything. Don’t come see me because you’re a liar. You are the most dishonest man I know,” Carney barked. “And you are fortunate that this room is not filled with African-Americans. You called him [Justice Alvin Clay] passive and you called [Justice] Jo Ann Henton incompetent or…or…or not able to comprehend the complexities of the landfill.”
Confused as to why he was injecting race into my words, my mind raced back to the column that angered him (“Was it so that it never sees the light of day?” ) because my concerns and words had absolutely nothing to do with race from my perspective – it was about experience and expertise. So I recommended that he “go back and read it again”.
Eyes blazing and temper flaring even higher, he shouted, “I read the thing! I’ll never read your column again, so you can forget about that! You don’t have the license to write anything you want. This IS America but you need to be able to prove your stuff…You keep bringing up the investigations. How many people have been arrested? Zero! How many people have been indicted? Zero! How many things have they proven to be wrong? Zero! Why don’t you tell the whole story?”
“I try to tell the whole story,” I explained.
The problem is, facts that I have not reported would only be those that are hidden from me. It’s not because I haven’t dug for the facts. Also, would Nixon have been correct if he said that no news reports should have been published until arrests were made? Of course not, because too many investigations, unless reported upon, simply vanish. Out of sight – out of mind. That can not happen this time.
10 of the 11 justices, four elected county officials and guests were left speechless and stunned. One county official even backed away from the table to no longer be between the Carney and I during the barrage.
Additionally, at least twice during the meeting and with county business being conducted, he interjected comments such as “Mrs. Henton are you grasping the complexities of this budget thing?” and “Justice Clay, don’t be passive at all…if you have questions”.
He also accused me of not researching my stories. Wow! How many of you have teased me about the details I put into my stories? Many.
So, he said that I am a liar and that I’m the most dishonest man he knows. He said that I haven’t told the whole story and that I don’t do my research. But he never specifically said where I was wrong. He never condemned or denied anything specific. It’s what Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post called “a non denial denial”.
I have honestly attempted to get all the facts, tell the entire story and give all persons involved the opportunity to give their side. The problem, and it is a major problem – is that the ASP, the FBI and the Prosecuting Attorney’s office aren’t going to give details of an ongoing investigation – EVER! But I didn’t stop there. I also contacted U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer’s office, the Arkansas Legislative Audit office and Carney himself…all in an effort to get the rest of the story…to tell the whole story…going wherever the facts led me.
However, Ellington did say on November 3, “I’m not trying to make an enemy of him [speaking of Carney], I just want to know where the million dollars went.”
Me too! I’m not looking for an enemy. I’m looking for answers, but Carney apparently doesn’t like to be questioned or held to any reasonable measure of accountability.
Other answers I must have in order to “tell the whole story” include – where did the money go? Why was any business at all, much less over a million dollars, done with a small company over 250 miles away owned by the brother of a landfill employee and a friend of Carney? Was that friendship why all that business was directed to Hollister? Why was so much repair work needed? Why approve such inflated prices? Why were some pieces of equipment repaired repeatedly again and again?
Why did Carney have informal ex parte communication with his friend the prosecutor asking, “Do I have anything to worry about”? Why was scrap sold to fund a catfish dinner for landfill employees? Why did Carney tell voters that the investigation was completed and that everyone had been exonerated? That certainly was not true.
Why did Carney gut the Landfill Committee? Agreeing with Ellington, I ask why did the county spend more than $1.2 million on rock, dirt and slag at the landfill?
So, is the County Judge under investigation? Maybe – maybe not. But he is absolutely 100 percent responsible for all aspects of what happens at the landfill. Not only is he the chief executive of the entire county government, but also the elected official that signs off on everything at the landfill.
Judge, the residents of the county have a right to know when the ASP and the FBI are investigating at our county courthouses or interviewing county officials – sorry.
Also, judge you are right…this IS America! And in America, we require openness and accountability. Our leaders must answer the questions posed by the press and by their constituency. And they can’t forbid them to come to the county judge’s office simply because they ask questions or criticize. To do otherwise would be a dictatorship. Judge if you don’t like being questioned, then you need to get out of politics.
Until I receive the answers to all the questions I have listed above, the “whole story” cannot be told. But we will get there.
NOTE: To hear the audio of the exchange, it is included within this video.