Earning Your Mistrust
If you watch KRQE News 13, you've seen the promos featuring anchors Dick Knipfing and Erika Ruiz promising to earn your trust with "balanced coverage."
Unfortunately, a Nov. 23 story aired by the station entitled, "Larry Barker uncovers man exploiting free housing program," doesn't seem to live up to those professed high standards. In fact, it seems to reveal some painfully low standards.
Here's how the story begins:
Ruiz: “How would you like to live for free on a piece of New Mexico real estate and have taxpayers pick up the rent and utilities?”
Knipfing: “It is a sweet deal that the state offers in exchange for police presence in high risk areas for crime, but one former cop is accused of taking advantage of that deal for years.”
Then along comes Larry Barker to explain the particulars.
Barker: “In exchange for free living expenses all the officers have to do is keep an eye on things. But while the onsite police watched out for dump trucks and bulldozers, nobody was keeping an eye on Rudy Acosta. For more than a decade State Police Captain Rudy Acosta, has lived here at Highway Department District 5 maintenance yard in Santa Fe, courtesy of the taxpayers. And even though this free housing is offered only to cops, no one seemed to notice Rudy Acosta hasn't been a cop for almost three years.”
First off, viewers with any sense of propriety could see from Q-13's photos that living in a doublewide alongside a chainlink fence next to a maintenance yard is arguably a "sweet deal." So that was the first clue that the story would likely plummet into something bordering on the absurd.
Next, Barker interviews state Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught.
Barker: “At what point did you discover that this gentleman was living on transportation department property rent- and utility-free?”
Faught: “When you brought it to my attention.”
Barker then exposes that officers choosing to accept this "sweet deal" from the state, do not sign formal lease agreements; he wonders: “Is that a prudent way to do business?” As a result of Larry's determination to seek taxpayer justice in this matter, Secretary Faught assures him she is "absolutely going to change" the policy. Ah, the power of investigative journalism!
Then Barker and camera crew track down Mr. Acosta, except their target prefers to receive questions in writing. He's a cop (knows his rights, one would assume) and he's obviously not thrilled to see some creepy newsman disrupting his humble existence. But Barker harangues the guy anyway, because this is of course a serious investigation. Here's an excerpt from the transcript:
Acosta: “I told you I would answer any questions you had.”
Barker: “Great, only in writing?”
Barker: “Did you tell the Highway Department that you're not a cop anymore?”
Acosta: “No sir, I didn't.”
Barker: “Did you know that the housing is only for state policemen?”
Acosta: “Well, nothing was ever in a contract. Put them in writing please.”
Barker: “You're not paying any rent, you're not even paying for utilities; taxpayers are picking it up for you. Why should Rudy Acosta get free housing?”
Acosta: “In writing, sir.”
Barker: “Why should Rudy Acosta get free housing courtesy of the taxpayers?”
Acosta: “In writing Sir.”
That's all from Mr. Acosta. And then Barker explains: "Rudy's sweet deal has come to an end. Just last month he was evicted."
Then it's back to Faught, who says, "I gave him 30 days to remove his belongings. We did that as a result of your investigation."
Barker neatly wraps up the story with these parting words: "The State Highway Department plans to bill Rudy Acosta for three years worth of rent and utilities. The total could exceed $13,000."
Then it's back to Dick Knipfing, who says, "And of course we will stay on top of that story and see what happens when that bill is delivered."
Well, the transcript came from KRQE's website on Dec. 22 and there hasn't been an update. However, an outraged friend of Mr. Acosta's sent “Thin Line” a copy of a letter hand delivered from Rhonda Faught to Rudy Acosta on Oct. 29—almost a month before KRQE's story ran—which reveals just how much of a sensationalized and malicious story this was.
The one-page letter states that the Department of Transportation learned from "other sources" that Acosta had been retired as a state cop for 16 months, not three years, and could be on the hook for $312 a month for renting the land where his mobile home continued to sit following his retirement. However, the letter states: "Because your presence probably deterred vandalism or theft of public property, I am willing to treat your continued occupation of the pad site as services rendered in exchange for any rent you may owe the Department." In other words, Acosta didn't owe any past rent. In the letter, Faught requests that Acosta pay $1,600 in past utility fees. He had 30 days to pay the bill, which he did—before the KRQE story ran! None of this was reported.
To say Acosta exploited a state housing program is ridiculous. He lived at the maintenance facility in good faith for more than a decade—it was his home. Since he retired, Acosta has worked as a security director for the state cultural affairs office, so technically he still is a public safety officer employed by the state. The whole issue was an administrative one, since there is no clear policy for retired cops working security at maintenance facilities in exchange for a free place to park their doublewide. Worst of all, based on Faught's letter, Q-13's unattributed claim that Acosta could be billed $13,000 was also one of those—what President Bush calls—exaggerations.
Oh, but don't worry, Q-13's gonna stay on top of the story ... earning your trust.