A local television news station has found itself in the middle of the ongoing battle between City Attorney Mike Aguirre and the largest union representing city employees.
Channel 10 aired a segment by investigative reporter Thom Jensen on June 17 that probed alleged nepotism at the Municipal Employees Association (MEA). Jensen's report asked why several family members of MEA president Judie Italiano, including her husband, were working for the union but contained no explanation from Italiano or other MEA leaders, who, according to Jensen, had declined to comment.
But Jensen's story received a speedy reply from MEA attorney Ann M. Smith, who, on June 20, filed an unfair labor-practices complaint against Aguirre, naming Channel 10 in her complaint. Smith claimed an unnamed reporter had conspired with Aguirre to discredit Italiano.
"The Channel 10 news broadcast... included a lengthy "hit piece' against MEA and MEA President Judie Italiano designed to foster distrust among MEA-represented employees-with the cornerstone being... Aguirre's call for a change of leadership in order to make progress," Smith wrote. "MEA is informed and believes that... Aguirre was instrumental in providing information to Channel 10 which could be used and distorted for this "hit piece' and conspired with Channel 10's investigative reporter to air the piece in retaliation for MEA's tireless opposition to his unlawful conduct."
The complaint came as the latest volley in an increasingly vitriolic repartee between Smith and Aguirre. At issue-the legality of a series of controversial benefit increases granted to city employees since 1996 in exchange for the city being allowed to contribute less than required to its employee pension fund. Those deals have contributed to a $1.7 billon pension plan deficit that has San Diego's finances in a stranglehold and threatens to force the city into bankruptcy.
Aguirre believes Italiano blessed those agreements because she received special benefits as a union president. He also claims many of the employee benefits are illegal and wants them rolled back. Union leaders say they believe those benefits are the legal property of employees and don't plan on giving them up without a fight.
Jensen was never named in Smith's official complaint, but in a letter to Channel 10's management and parent company, McGraw-Hill, dated the same day, she decried Jensen's reporting, claiming he made several inaccuracies, and demanded an investigation and a retraction.
"There was no newsworthy purpose for this report other than as a bold attempt to foster discontent and distrust among MEA-represented employees by the dissemination of false information about their union," Smith wrote. "Rather than contributing to balanced public discourse on these critical issues, Channel 10 has unconscionably used the airwaves to further a particular political agenda."
Channel 10's managing editor, JW August, told CityBeat the story was vetted before it ran and was accurate. "The bottom line is we stand behind Thom on this report 100 percent," he said, dismissing any conspiracy theory.
Contacted by CityBeat, Smith declined to comment on specifics of the dispute, but in her letter she said she plans to bring her complaint before the Federal Communications Commission and other unnamed watchdog agencies if her concerns aren't satisfactorily addressed.
"My resolve to make McGraw-Hill, Channel 10 and Thom Jensen accountable for their wrongdoing is equaled only by my resolve to stop the irresponsible efforts of... Aguirre," she wrote.
According to Smith, a subject of a faulty news report has less than 30 days to file an initial complaint with the media organization and up to one year before filing a defamation suit. Smith wouldn't comment on whether the MEA planned to take legal action.
This isn't the first time Smith and Jensen have clashed.
Last October, Channel 10 broadcast Jensen's story about possible corruption among union officials. He focused on a controversial 2002 agreement allowing the city to further under-fund the pension system and asked whether union officials had supported the deal because they profited personally. Citing unnamed sources, Jensen reported that as a result of the deal, Italiano's pension package increased by 2,000 percent, ensuring that she would receive $110,000 a year for life as well as a $500,000 lump-sum payment upon retirement.
Days later, Smith wrote a letter accusing Jensen of defaming Italiano and demanded a retraction and correction. Smith wrote that, among other things, Jensen's numbers were wrong, calling the 2,000-percent increase bogus and claiming that the $110,000 figure was "high-by many thousands of dollars."
In a written response, a lawyer from McGraw-Hill declined Smith's requests for a retraction, although a story posted on Channel 10's website-containing different language than the broadcast version-was corrected. The lawyer wrote that Channel 10 "stands by the broadcast and the web story as accurate reports concerning all of the issues involved."
Jensen told CityBeat that corporate policy bars him from commenting, but he said he stands by the numbers in his report.
Smith declined to release the exact figures related to Italiano's salary and benefits.
Months after their initial dispute, Smith again wrote to station management. This time to report that Jensen and a photojournalist had assaulted her and Italiano outside a January City Council meeting-something Channel 10 denies-and took issue with questions Jensen was asking about alleged nepotism at the MEA.
"Pursuit of this issue is retaliatory union-busting-pure and simple-and the manner in which he is conducting the so-called "investigation' of this non-public issue will not be tolerated," Smith wrote.
"She's very verbose and prone to overstatement, I think," Channel 10's August said of Smith. "Her job is to protect Italiano, the union and her paycheck, and I understand that. It's just business and she's doing it.
"If there's a story there, we will chase it," he said. "That's what we do for a living."
Smith has pressured other local news organizations in the past.
Bob Page, managing editor at Fox 6 news says Smith sent a "threatening letter" to management last fall after the station aired a segment questioning Italiano's pension benefits. "She's very hostile," Page said of Smith. "We talked about [her letter] with our legal team, and, quite frankly, she was fishing."
Smith also sent letters to the Union-Tribune in December blasting its editorial board for publishing "a false and reckless editorial" accusing Italiano and two other union leaders of receiving "at best... a grossly improper gift of public funds [and] at worst... an illegal bribe."
Again Smith said the editorial defamed Italiano and demanded a retraction, which was not forthcoming. An attorney representing Bill Farrar, the former president of the Police Officers Association, the union representing city cops, sent a similar letter to the U-T.
U-T editorial page editor Bob Kittle didn't respond to a request for comment.But officials from the three other unions representing city employees told CityBeat that they have had no problems with Channel 10, Jensen or other local news organizations, other than the editorial board of what Joan Raymond, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 127, called the "non-Union-Tribune." In fact, Raymond's only other complaint was that the media often fails to distinguish the actions of Smith and the MEA from those of the other unions.