Big Boot

Columnist is the first casualty of the P-D's exposé on the sheriff's department

Mike Guzy says his column that didn't appear on the op-ed page of the August 21 Post-Dispatch was about divorce. P-D editor Ellen Soeteber says she was told the spiked column was about French existentialist novelist Albert Camus.

Either way, it had nothing to do with the sheriff's department.

Guzy and Soeteber don't agree on much that's happened since the publication of Carolyn Tuft's series of articles on Sheriff Jim Murphy and his band of ghost workers known as deputies. One thing is clear: Guzy's weekly op-ed column has been dropped.

For the past year Guzy, a retired cop and administrative assistant to Murphy, has written a column for the P-D that appeared on Wednesdays. For several years before landing the weekly slot, Guzy was a regular contributor to the "Commentary" page, which is -- literally and, often, ideologically -- opposite the editorial page.

An unusual note by Soeteber at the bottom of that page on August 21 stated that Guzy's column had been "suspended" until the P-D "completes its investigation" of Murphy's office. Guzy's $100-or-so-a-week freelance gig was suspended the day after he went on KMOX-AM with Charles Brennan to blast Tuft's series as inaccurate and over the top. Guzy believes his public criticism of the series led to Soeteber's killing his column.

"Had I gone on Charles Brennan's show and said that I thought it was a well-done investigative report that raised troubling questions or something, I think I would still be writing for them today," says Guzy.

Soeteber disagrees.

"The fact that he went on KMOX had absolutely nothing to do with this," she says. "What he said on KMOX and the other stations makes no difference to me."

Well, maybe, but the timing of the "suspension" sure makes it look tacky.

Soeteber claims the reason she suspended the column is that keeping an op-ed columnist who works in an office under investigation is a "conflict" that confuses readers.

"People think of him as a regular columnist appearing in the Post-Dispatch every week. He's kind of in a unique situation. But his full-time job is known as the sheriff's right-hand man," says Soeteber.

Surely the village savants who run the editorial page knew that the byline "M.W. Guzy" and the "Mike Guzy" periodically quoted in the news stories of the paper referred to the same person. Surely during the six-months-or-so investigation by Tuft, the editorial-page overseers learned what Guzy's day job was.

But two days after the articles surfaced and one day after Guzy defended the sheriff's department publicly, there was sudden talk of conflict and confusion. Any reader who sees a conflict in Guzy's most recent choice of topic is truly addled. His August 14 column, headlined "We Can't Buy Happiness at the Mall," dealt with materialism and how commercials try to convince Americans that "all human travails can be relieved through enlightened consumption."

With Guzy pontificating about such ethereal topics and avoiding discussion of deadbeat deputies, it's hard to justify any fuss about his column. But Soeteber says she's received letters and e-mails questioning Guzy's role at the paper.

"Mr. Guzy and his friends are trying to portray this as one-sided, and it's not," says Soeteber. "There's a good many readers who are saying, 'Wow, you're investigating his office, you find out all these things, he's in charge of internal affairs and you're going to vouch for him?'"

Short Cuts doubts that a "good many readers" give a damn one way or the other. It is peculiar that an op-ed columnist who isn't writing about his day job is dropped because of that day job.

Suspending Guzy's column does mean that in follow-up stories to the sheriff's-department investigation, Guzy will no longer have to be described as a "weekly contributor to the Post-Dispatch's editorial page." That may be a relief to Soeteber.

One insightful RFT reader contacted Short Cuts, wondering whether Guzy could be considered a ghost worker for the sheriff's office if he typed his columns for the P-D while he was on the clock at his $70,000-a-year day job. Technically the reader has a point, but that apparently was not part of Tuft's inquiry. Guess it depends on where that second job is.

Whether or not readers enjoyed Guzy's work, it was refreshing that the cloistered klutzes who run the P-D editorial page actually stooped to have the retired detective sergeant with twenty-one years on the city police force write for the op-ed page as a regular columnist and better still that he wrote about stuff that had nothing to do with cops -- or the sheriff's department.

But Guzy's interpretation of a conversation with editorial-page editor Christine Bertelson makes it appear that that breath of fresh air is gone.

"I asked her if they were going to pick it up again after the investigation was over," Guzy says. "She said that had not been determined, but the very distinct impression I got was 'You're going to go out of print, and then everybody is going to forget about you after a couple months and then we'll just drop you.'"

Guzy's not trying to butter anybody up to get his column back. He says the suspension makes the Post look "petty and vindictive." And he describes the three-day Tuft series as "overkill." That the "investigation" continues baffles him.

"I think they're trying to turn this into Watergate," says Guzy. "Unfortunately, it's 99 percent bun and no wiener."

Conspiracy theorists claim the whole series on the sheriff's office was intended to bolster the P-D's support of the home-rule amendment on the November ballot. They point to the land-speed record set by the editorial-page thumb-suckers who turned Murphy and his minions into exhibits A through M on why the city needs to adopt a home-rule charter and eliminate all these ancient patronage offices.

Soeteber says all the "fuss" about putting Guzy's column in limbo is just a "smokescreen" by the sheriff's office to obscure the revelations of Tuft's series. If so, it was a smokescreen made possible by the suspension of Guzy's column. Soeteber says the real story is "the scandal" Tuft's series revealed.

"We're doing what you guys recommended we do, some kick-butt journalism," Soeteber tells Short Cuts.

Well, yeah. Sunday's opening package was good, the kind of work a decent daily should do on a routine basis. The second day's article, citing deputies' arrest records -- including one deputy who pleaded guilty to trespassing on a police firing range when he was eighteen -- showed signs of weakness. By Tuesday, the series was running on fumes: Several deputies had infractions on their drivers' licenses. Ooh, scary.

If the series had run a fourth day, readers might have discovered how many overdue library books deputies had and which ones were tardy for their high-school phys-ed classes.

The first-day splash was reminiscent of work done years ago by retired P-D reporter Lou Rose, who once wrote a series on St. Louis building inspectors. But even that "big exposé" didn't excite the world-weary Guzy.

"Yeah, he did a big exposé once that said city workers don't work real hard. Now that was worth buying -- stop the presses, baby," says Guzy. "I'm not trying to sell the notion that we routinely have people who fall over dead from overwork. I'm just saying people do show up, they do work and they do go home. Most of these jobs aren't real demanding. It's not Interpol or the FBI or anything. It's courthouse duties -- bailiff in the courtroom, that sort of thing."

What Guzy thinks about Tuft's series doesn't matter. The city's only daily had a chance to appear broad-minded, allowing one of its op-ed columnists to haze the paper in public. As long as Guzy didn't write about anything remotely related to the sheriff's department, he should have kept his gig.

Soeteber intimates that because Guzy is in charge of internal affairs for the sheriff's office and he "handled" Murphy's printed response on the editorial page, "confusion" was created for P-D readers.

Confusion may also have been triggered when an editorial castigating Mickey McTague, a longtime sheriff's department employee named by Murphy to monitor process servers, brought a defense of McTague from another Post columnist, Bill McClellan. McClellan took pains to defend the "excellent" work by Tuft but clearly made light of the over-the-top editorial against McTague. Apparently some Post columnists can afford to have an opinion.

Either Guzy's day job or his public opinions -- or both -- cost him his column. Did his day job skew his view of divorce? Or did his take on Camus suffer because he suspected the French novelist supported home rule?