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Why can’t the CJ say it? MSD more evidence Louisville government was going down the drain

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(Editor’s note: Brian Tucker of  The Valley Report and Terry Boyd contributed to this post.)

(Editor’s note: The original version of this post omitted the fact former Courier-Journal cartoonist Nick Anderson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons. Anderson now works for the Houston Chronicle.)

The Courier-Journals’ claim to fame, though it hasn’t won a major reporting award during the last 20 years under Gannett Co. Inc., is that it does “Watchdog Journalism.”

Watchdog journalism is important.

Aggressive journalism keeps government officials honest, or at least discrete enough not to allow city government to become an open sewer.

So, when we saw James Brugger’s latest story documenting corruption at Metropolitan Sewer District, we said, “At last. The CJ  is growing some cojones.”

Nope.

The latest MSD story has the Gannett imprimatur: Readers never quite get to where the buck stops. We never quite get the whole story, which we believe is a culture of corruption that’s been covered up for years.

The CJ story reports what everyone knows: MSD Executive Director Bud Schardein has handed out big contracts to favored people without competitive bidding including to people on the MSD board.

One important point that doesn’t get a lot of space in the CJ story: MSD is a quasi-governmental agency, a sewage treatment district created by state mandate and controlled by city government.

Seven paragraphs from the end, Bruggers drops in how, oh yeah, the MAYOR appoints MSD’s eight board members, and the executive director and chief engineer “serve at the pleasure of the mayor.”

The board members’ links to the appointing administration are glaring, and in some cases, clear conflicts of interest (at best) or political paybacks (at worst).

Oddly, that line of communication between the appointer and appointees apparently closes immediately upon their taking a seat on the board, and no one in the Abramson administration knew what Bud Schardein was doing.

For 20 years.

The problem with this type of “master/servant” relationship is obvious. You simply have people who were proven “good soldiers” during a political campaign being rewarded by an appointment to the board where again they are relegated to being “good soldiers,” never rocking Bud’s Boat at MSD.

Most have no experience in waste water management, construction, infrastructure or engineering. That type of setup is bound to wring out any whistle blowers or troublemakers and creates the shadiest, most expensive sewer district in the nation.

(The oddest item in the story was the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to MSD outside attorney Larry Zielke for working bond issues. Choosing a commercial litigator such as Zielke to apparently create and place $2.6 billion in debt instruments rather than Louisville-based financial firm Hilliard Lyons is sort of like using your family doctor for a heart transplant. Sure, Zielke works cheap, but we’d sure like to see that paper!)

Instead of connecting dots, the CJ story leads with the revelation that MSD’s former human resources director was given a year’s salary, about $140,000, to go away after he made allegations of waste, fraud and abuse.

Apparently Jerry Ferguson had spent a lot more time documenting WF&A than running the HR department. As part of Ferguson’s termination settlement, “you’re fired” was changed to “I quit,” and both he and MSD agreed to never, ever discuss the case nor say anything mean about each other.

Ferguson was involved in a 1999 discrimination suit at Ford Motor Co. that resulted his getting $195,000 from the car marker to go away.

Some whistle blower.

What’s really going on here? Other than a slow drip of constant scandals throughout Louisville government, the MSD story looks to be score settling and house cleaning.

The CJ magically got a copy of Ferguson’s allegations from … the current administration, maybe? From angry contractors who couldn’t break through Bud’s Boys? It’s an odd, unexplained series of happy events that don’t so much read like enterprise journalism as a story guided by an omniscient hand behind the curtain:

Ferguson’s accusations about the agency had been outlined in a letter his lawyer, Garry Adams, sent to MSD six weeks after his client was fired, for undisclosed reasons, on Aug. 12, 2010. MSD declined to provide a copy of the letter to the newspaper. Assistant legal counsel Stephanie Harris said releasing Ferguson’s claims would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and reveal “preliminary correspondence in which opinions are merely expressed.” But the newspaper obtained a copy of the letter, which claimed some employees or contractors were being paid to do little or no work; that MSD was overpaying employees and giving bonuses to some who weren’t eligible for them; and questioned the financing of certain MSD land deals.

Can you say, “Set up?” A set up that will allow the CJ to proclaim “watchdog journalism!” when Mayor Greg Fischer gives Schardein the boot.

You have to give Fischer credit. Since he’s walked through the door five months ago, he’s addressed problems that festered for years under Abramson, from pushing the Whiskey Row mess to some sort of resolution to settling with retired firemen on miscalculated overtime pay.

In the end, it’s interesting that Ferguson apparently had the goods on MSD shenanigans. But what about the real problems at MSD?

Wouldn’t a watchdog start looking at how the $850 million Louisville has to spend on Federal Clean Water Act compliance compares to other cities? What’s that doing to our bills?

Is MSD doing the job of making sure sewage isn’t pouring into the Ohio River?

And why can CJ editorial staffers never quite bring themselves to say, “Louisville politics are a sewer”?

The reason they can’t say it is because for 20 years, they lived comfortably off the Abramson press release and as the favored media outlet for leaks drifting over the transom.

That’s not watchdog journalism.

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