This week I'm writing about the governor's press minions again. You may be wondering why, given that I just wrote about them -- specifically Jacob DiPietre (who as the press secretary for Gov. Jeb Bush is number two in the office under communications director Alia Faraj, not number one as I had reported) -- a couple of weeks ago ("Zen and the Art of Press Management," June 16). Hadn't I said enough about the office's policy of not returning reporters' phone calls? Well, probably, but I'm writing this as a holiday weekend approaches, and dealing with a place that doesn't return phone calls cuts my work in half.
Another reason is I received a fair amount of response to that column. Reporters from around the state e-mailed or called to echo their frustrations with the office (though few would allow themselves to be quoted). They complained about delays, about the office's practice of having lawyers vet records requests and then charging the lawyers' fees to the requesting paper. Ex-reporters chuckled as they noted that things had changed little in the years since they've left the business. A couple of full-blooded PR people contacted me, genuinely puzzled by DiPietre's policy of not responding to a single question -- ever. Hell, they said, if they had known the game could be played that way, they would have saved themselves years of aggravation and headaches by not communicating with reporters. Think of all the rounds of golf that could have been slipped in during those long lunch hours.
"'There are no answers, only more questions,'" wrote Jim Suydam, quoting my column. "I love it. As a certified spokesweasel for a Texas politician, I vow to use this gem on a reporter at my very first opportunity today. In fact I really am going to try to work in some koans on a regular basis. If you know of any I can pilfer from, would you be so kind as to e-mail them to me? Enlightenment for all, I say. Thanks for the inspiration."
You're welcome, Jim; glad I could help.
"These guys are quick to issue a press release to push some agenda," lamented one reporter. "But once you start asking hard questions, they'll never call you back."
Cited another: "Frankly, they are out of control."
Then I heard from Matthew Doig with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, who called to offer words of encouragement. In 2004, Doig and colleague Chris Davis embarked on a statewide "audit" to examine public agencies' compliance with records requests. With the help of 29 other newspapers, volunteers set out to document how officials at all levels of government would respond to a routine request to inspect records. They found that of the agencies audited, only 57 percent complied.
And of the six state agencies audited, the only one that failed was the governor's press office. Officials there first had a lawyer review the information and then demanded personal information the public-records law doesn't require.
"The whole reason we did the audit was because we were frustrated in our attempts to get public records," Doig says. "Time and again when we were dealing with state agencies, our phone calls were not returned, or there were improper restrictions put on the request for records. Far too often we were having to get our lawyers involved. If we were having these types of problems, we could only imagine what the average citizen was up against."
I zeroed in on Bush's press secretary DiPietre and how neither he nor anyone else responded to three weeks of calls seeking comment about a judicial appointment. Normal practice is for a spokesperson to at least say, "No comment." That way we know not to call back. The only phone call returned was when I threatened to involve a New Times attorney to help with a records request sent to the Governor's Office of Appointments, which failed to inform me it didn't handle such requests and failed to transfer the request to DiPietre's office. It took three months to get that request fulfilled.
People familiar with DiPietre's early years recommended I take a look where he learned his press handling skills. That indeed turned out to be illuminating.
After graduating in 2000 from Northwest Missouri State University -- where he donned a fuzzy cat costume with an oversize head and paraded around as the school's mascot Bobby the Bearcat ("very outgoing," his cheerleading coach told the school's paper) -- DiPietre eventually took a job with Sam Graves, a conservative congressman from Missouri. Graves was briefly famous for securing a $273,000 federal grant so officials in Blue Springs, Missouri, could study the teen Goth problem and help "identify Goth culture leaders that are preying on our kids," as he asserted in a 2002 press release (remember, DiPietre was his press secretary). More than half the money was returned when officials couldn't find a problem.
Graves had a reputation as a mean, bare-knuckled campaigner, and that's how he trained his staff. In 2004, The Pitch, a New Times weekly in Kansas City, Missouri, wrote about Graves staffers harassing opponents so aggressively while trying to photograph them that police had to be called.
G. Spencer Miller, who ran for Nodaway County prosecutor in 2002 as a Republican, named DiPietre in a defamation lawsuit for his part in creating a particularly vicious campaign ad calling Miller a carpetbagger. Miller wasn't even running against Graves; he had simply questioned whether Graves's use of his own campaign money for another candidate's race was legal.
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DiPietre allegedly went to his former university's newspaper, where he had been an editor, and procured Miller's photo, which appeared in the offending ad. When the school paper confronted DiPietre about using the mug for the ad, he denied any involvement. But at the time the ad was submitted to the Maryville Daily Forum, the paper was told to contact DiPietre's wife with any questions.
Miller eventually dropped the lawsuit but remains disgusted by Graves and his staff. "It's a pit," Miller told The Pitch. "My impression is they hurt you and hurt you real bad."
Cutting one's political teeth with dirty tricks and denials, it appears, is perfect training as Florida's press secretary.
DiPietre, of course, declined to comment.