It’s always a little embarrassing for a reporter when you’re covering a meeting and during some important discussion of state, someone mentions you by name. As a rule, newsdogs prefer staying in the background and not becoming part of the story.
It happens sometimes though. Back in the 1980s, while working for another newspaper, I was denounced by a Santa Fe city councilor at a council meeting over a story I’d written about his son-in-law getting a city government job. (The councilor employed a thread-worn insult to journalists that we “just wanted to sell papers.” Oh dear!)
It happened the early part of this century during a murder trial, when an out-of state defense lawyer repeatedly referred to my old AOL website. He incessantly mocked the dancing Mr. Potato Head gifs and the photo of me with Bo Diddley on my homepage. But what he really didn’t like was my coverage of his client, which I’d republished on the site.
That was annoying to me, but it got serious when he subpoenaed my emails with one of his client’s former employees. His subpoena resulted in a court hearing — out of the presence of the jury, of course — in which the judge ruled that he personally would inspect those emails to see if any should be admitted as evidence. He later decided none of my emails was relevant. The jury eventually found the defendant not guilty. I’ve always wondered whether Bo Diddley and/or Mr. Potato Head figured into that decision.
And I became “part of the story” just four years ago when I’d made one of my “broad and burdensome” public records requests to the state Public Regulations Commission for all correspondence between the five commissioners and Public Service Company of New Mexico. The PRC eventually sent me a compact disc full of hundreds of emails. Most were boring and innocuous, but buried deep inside the avalanche of mundane emails were several documents marked “confidential” that turned out to be the coal supply contracts between PNM and the coal companies involved with the San Juan Generating Station.
Even before I’d had a chance to go through the contents of the CD, I started getting frantic phone messages from a PRC lawyer, telling me that the confidential contracts had been given to me by mistake and could I please return the disc? I declined. I said I’d have to talk to my editor — who I knew would refuse because, well, he’s a journalist. Soon thereafter, The New Mexican received word that it was being sued by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. PNM and the coal companies soon joined the lawsuit.
Before we actually went to court, the commission started having second thoughts. Some commissioners publicly denounced the suit. Meanwhile, our lawyer, Victor Marshall, filed a countersuit.
And, oh yeah, we published the contracts before that court hearing.
By the end of the year, the commission settled the countersuit, agreeing to pay The New Mexican $20,000. However, neither PNM nor the coal companies ever settled, so the countersuit is still dragging through the legal system.
I was reminded of this last week when Marshall appeared before the PRC asking the body to “tweak” some of its rules concerning confidentially of documents submitted in public cases. As Marshall pointed out, PNM (and probably other companies regulated by the commission) routinely mark documents “confidential” to keep information out of the public eye. Marshall wants the commission to consider a policy in which nothing could be kept “confidential” for more than five days, unless a hearing examiner rules that some parts of the document actually deserves secrecy.
Makes sense to me, And maybe it even makes sense to the commission, which agreed to have Michael Smith, the general counsel, look into starting a rule-making procedure to consider Marshall’s proposal.
During the lawyer’s presentation, I got that old uncomfortable feeling when he mentioned my name in reference to my public-records request that sparked the suit and countersuit. “It’s all his fault,” Marshall said jokingly.
And now I’m writing about it. Hope this column sells some papers.