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 V.15 No.10 | March 9 - 15, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

A Bad Case of Sensationalism

A recent Channel 13 “investigative” report circulates faulty information

I missed KRQE Channel 13's recent “investigative” report on so-called unqualified persons being hired to state jobs by Gov. Bill Richardson, but around the office water cooler it was a hot topic. I gather its thesis was that our governor has been found to have (who would have imagined it!) hired persons into state jobs primarily for their loyalty rather than their skills.

I don't know everyone involved, so I can't speak directly to the main thrust of the piece, other than to say, “Isn't this what every governor, mayor, president, etc. is expected to do?” I mean, do we really think Gary Johnson or George W. Bush or Martin Chavez ever hesitated to lard the public payrolls with faithful foot soldiers who'd trudged loyally under their campaign banners?

Is this the sort of low-hanging fruit to which Larry Barker and his imitators in the field of faux investigative reporting have at last been reduced to plucking? “Elected Official Hires Supporters” doesn't strike me as much of a revelation, let alone the kind of insight that would qualify for Pulitzer consideration.

One person included in the television report, however, is someone known to me personally. His name, footage of him at work and some commentary about him being employed “as a $42,000-a-year secretary” dragged Harry Pavlides, a very talented person working at the New Mexico State Fair, into the middle of the discussion.

He does not belong in it. In the six years I have known him, Pavlides has earned a great many labels from those with whom he has come in contact, but “unqualified” would never be one of them. I have seen his work up close as an analyst at the New Mexico Legislature and can honestly say I would not hesitate to entrust him with great responsibilities.

I have, in fact, done so. And he produced every time. He brought together the automobile antifreeze industry with animal protection advocates and hammered out the core agreements that produced the “Scooby's Law” bill that now requires a bittering agent be added to antifreeze to prevent pets from drinking it.

He sat patiently through hours of torturous testimony from all sides on the issue of paper ballots, electronic vote tallies and voter-verifiable paper trails, and from that super-heated dialogue he negotiated a version that got enough support to reach the governor's desk. A great many people personally told me his work on the election reform bill in the 2005 session contributed to its success.

At Expo New Mexico he was hired as the staff person responsible for supporting the appointed State Fair Commission. His title may well be “secretary” but his actual duties involve public relations, education, planning, and even polling or surveying the public, and he performs those duties well.

I won't suggest Pavlides is ready for an audition as an intern with Donald Trump. But what I will say, unequivocally, is that to put his name and face on camera as an example of “unqualified hires” by the governor is flat wrong. It is painting with way too broad a brush.

I wouldn't be surprised to discover that others among the so-called “unqualified hires” are also being unfairly and inaccurately labeled. Just because a television reporter says someone is unqualified may not (duh) make it so.

What this story did was a classic case of “guilt by association.” It flows from the brouhaha over the UNM Health Sciences Center hiring Billy Sparks, a former PR man for the governor. There are many at UNM who were less-than-ecstatic to learn he would be paid in excess of $100,000 a year by that institution of higher education ... and that he didn't even have a bachelor's degree.

So from that seed's implantation of doubt (“how many other high-priced unqualifieds might be padding the state rolls?”) to the faulty conclusion reached by Barker (“if you were hired by the governor, you must be unqualified”) wasn't a very wide gap to leap.

Unfortunately, another one of Richardson's very best appointees may also be swept away in the public disinformation campaign. Retired Children's Court Judge Tommy Jewell was portrayed in that same news program as damaged goods. His lengthy career on the bench devoted to serving children and families could be negated by a murky seven-year-old personal episode dredged up by Barker.

As I write, Jewell has not yet decided to accept the appointment Richardson had tendered to become Secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD). I hope he does. His maturity and his perspective are badly needed in CYFD. His predecessor seriously damaged morale within the department and its 2,000 employees now need a leader capable of restoring calm and inspiring action, both of which Jewell is prepared to do.

The old “scandal” alluded to by Barker should not disqualify Judge Jewell from agreeing to take the helm at CYFD. But the kind of reputation-smearing ordeal that Channel 13's “investigative” report presages could be enough to scare off all but the most determined of public servants.

No one should conclude Tommy Jewell is guilty of anything if he passes on the appointment and no one can blame him if he elects not to. But if he does pass, this state will have missed a golden opportunity to take a step in the right direction.

A nagging question about Channel 13's report remains: Is there any valid public purpose that this sort of scandal-mongering serves or is it gossip pure-and-simple, offered only for our raw enjoyment?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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