It's been a good 50 years since the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won a Pulitzer Prize for news, but the paper's brass may have been hoping to end that dry spell last year when they nominated the four-part investigative series "Burning Through Tax Dollars" for the prestigious award. Among other findings, reporters Susan Weich and Elizabethe Holland revealed that boards running thirteen area fire-protection districts were routinely paying themselves multiple attendance fees for the same meeting. Though the story failed to end the Post's Pulitzer drought, it did put an end to what Attorney General Jay Nixon's office called "double dipping": Earlier this year state lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting the practice.
The new law went into effect August 28. Two weeks before that, Shannon Duffy, one of the officials Weich and Holland nailed in their story, got himself a new, $80,000-per-year position: business agent for the St. Louis Newspaper Guild -- the union that represents Weich, Holland and their colleagues at the Post-Dispatch.
At the end of July, the guild sent out a memo to members announcing an August 14 vote on Duffy's appointment. Days before the vote, Weich and Holland met with the union's executive committee and pointed them to Duffy's various alleged transgressions, many of which were reported in the Post:
While on the board of the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District, Duffy took a pay raise to which he was not entitled.
While Duffy was a director, the fire district produced a newsletter whose lead article quoted him saying that if a tax-hike proposal in an upcoming election were to fail, "services will be at risk." State law prohibits government bodies from using tax dollars to campaign for issues.
Soon after "Burning Through Tax Dollars" ran in August 2004, Duffy voted to hire an accountant who at the time was on probation from the Missouri State Board of Accountancy for performing audits he was unqualified to do.
"We wanted a delay on the vote," says Holland, who works part-time at the Post. She says she and Weich told the committee, "'These are the things we know right now, without looking into him. If you give us more time to check him out, maybe there will be some other things that we could find out -- or should find out.'"
Adds Weich, who works in the Post's St. Charles bureau: "I felt the committee took our concerns seriously."
Nonetheless, guild members who attended the August 14 meeting were asked to ratify Shannon Duffy's appointment as business agent. After Weich read aloud a statement outlining Holland's and her concerns, guild members voted to approve the executive committee's recommendation to hire Duffy.
Only about 40 members -- less than 10 percent of the guild's 600-plus membership -- were in attendance.
Jeff Gordon, a member of the executive committee and the guild's president, concedes that Weich and Holland brought up troubling issues about Duffy's past. But he notes that Florissant Valley didn't come off as one of the worst offenders in "Burning Through Tax Dollars."
"In looking at the series, it wasn't like, 'Oh yeah, Florissant Valley -- that's a catastrophe.' It just wasn't one that jumped out," says Gordon, a Post sports columnist. "We had a discussion on each of the concerns that were brought up. We wanted to hear [Duffy's] explanation, but I was satisfied after I'd reviewed the series and heard his explanations."
Gordon adds that Duffy's recommendations from former colleagues were overwhelmingly positive and says he didn't want to drag out the vetting process. "There were so many things this guy had done. When you have that kind of a general reputation -- we relied heavily on that," says Gordon, noting that Duffy was signed to a one-year contract. "We could have come back in three weeks and hammered at some of these points, but that would be a twelve-hour meeting. People were pretty much exhausted on [Weich's and Holland's] four or five points."
Duffy admits he's made mistakes. "I'm not perfect," he says, reached by telephone in Memphis. "But there was no attempt to do anything sneaky or wrong. We were just trying to do business in the most efficient way we knew."
He adds that though he did "double dip" while on the fire board, it wasn't illegal at the time. Duffy also says many times board members met gratis, owing to the fact that they were eligible to collect -- typically $200 per meeting -- for a maximum of four meetings a month. "There were months when we had seven or eight meetings, but we still only got paid for four," he says.
He adds that the raise he took stemmed from an honest mistake and says that he returned the money. He also defends the accountant who was on probation: "He's done some pretty neat things since he's been there; he's shown us how to save quite a bit of money."
Still, Weich and Holland stand by their assertion that the guild's executive committee should have vetted Duffy more thoroughly before calling for a vote.
"I almost feel like the executive committee owes him an apology," says Holland. "Had the committee done a better job researching him, then these issues would have been aired already, and he wouldn't be standing there on the day he's supposed to be getting applause having to answer questions. It was a painful initiation."
Gordon agrees. "The tough part is -- and this is one of our weaknesses -- our communication was not good enough," says the guild president. "We've got to be better at these things, and I'm hoping that Shannon will make us better at the thing we failed to do this time. I think he's the right guy."
The dustup comes at a turbulent time for the guild, which represents a wide range of employees at several local news outlets. Just last month former guild office manager Jeri Russell pleaded guilty to forging a union officer's signature on nearly $8,000 worth of checks. The union is gearing up for negotiations on behalf of guild members at KSDK-TV (Channel 5). And at the Post, which was recently sold by Pulitzer Inc. to Davenport, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, executives recently offered a so-called voluntary retirement incentive to veteran staffers over age 50.
"It's a tremendous offer," Gordon says of the Post's initiative, which promises a cash incentive of one week's salary for every 26 weeks of service, along with fully vested pension benefits.
But, adds Gordon, it's an offer that might have a negative impact on the newspaper guild: "They're going to replace a bunch of diehard union members. It's going to bring in a lot of new members that don't understand unions, and we'll need someone like Shannon, who can rally people."
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