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AlcoaSaga Part 1: Unprecedented subpoena of UNC-TV’s work tapes highlight media’s pivotal role in the battle over the Yadkin River

by Keith Barber

Alcoa’s efforts to retain another 50 years of control over a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that includes four hydroelectric dams began in 2004, when the aluminum giant began to craft a re-licensing agreement by meeting with stakeholders in the communities along the Yadkin River. At the time there was very little fanfare and even less press coverage.

Ten weeks ago, that all changed.

On July 1, the news that state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) had taken the unprecedented step of requesting work tapes and materials compiled by former UNC-TV senior legislative correspondent Eszter Vajda during her investigation into alleged PCB, PAH, cyanide, arsenic and fluoride contamination of Badin Lake and the Yadkin River by Alcoa’s Badin Works facility set off a firestorm of controversy. Hartsell requested the raw tapes to show to the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee on July 6. With the short session of the legislature scheduled to wrap up in a few days, Fletcher, a co-sponsor of the Yadkin River Trust bill, was looking to build support for the legislation.

The Yadkin River Trust bill would have created a vehicle for the state to regain the water rights to the 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that passes through Davie, Davidson, Rowan, Montgomery and Stanly counties and encompasses four hydroelectric dams at the High Rock, Tuckertown, Narrows and Falls reservoirs if the FERC denied Alcoa’s relicensing application. Ultimately, the General Assembly passed a bill that established the Uwharrie Resources Commission, which achieves the basic goals of the Yadkin River Trust bill.

On July 2, UNC-TV management decided to comply with Hartsell’s request despite the fact that North Carolina’s shield law for journalists clearly states that journalists have “a qualified privilege against disclosure in any legal proceeding of any confidential or nonconfidential information, document, or item obtained or prepared while acting as a journalist.”

UNC-TV management’s decision to capitulate to the demands of the General Assembly drew harsh criticism from its colleagues in the media. But a review of more than 5,800 documents released by UNC-TV as part of public records request by YES! Weekly reveals a complex story that gets to the heart of the station’s dilemma. UNC-TV is a journalism organization but is funded by the General Assembly and is governed by the UNC Board of Governors.

As a state-funded agency, UNC-TV is obligated to comply with requests from the General Assembly, but Hartsell’s request and subsequent subpoena for Vajda’s work tapes on the Alcoa story took the public broadcasting station into uncharted territory.

A flurry of e-mails sent by members of UNC-TV’s management team on June 30 sheds light on the degree to which the station’s leadership attempted to fight Hartsell’s request. UNC-TV Director and General Manager Tom Howe pleaded with his boss, UNC President Erskine Bowles, to intervene and dissuade Hartsell from ordering Vajda’s work tapes.

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“Work tapes are considered by any journalism organization to be privileged material for the use of those involved in creating a final product,” Howe stated in an e-mail. “I know of no precedent for a legislative body requesting and receiving work material from a journalism organization. While it may be the right of the Senate to demand these materials, it will violate all journalism standards for us to comply.”

Howe said he spoke with Jim Goodmon, president and CEO of WRAL-TV, “who was outraged this was occurring.” In a July 1 e-mail, Goodmon encouraged Howe to invoke the shield law in response to the subpoena.

Despite Howe’s pleas, Bowles declined to intervene and merely advised Howe to “ask the lawyers.”

“I know you will do what is legally, ethically and morally right,” Bowles stated in his reply.

The internal debate raged on at UNC-TV as evidenced by the phalanx of e-mails sent by UNC-TV management as Hartsell’s request proved to be a true ethical and moral dilemma for UNC-TV’s leadership.

Shannon Vickery, UNC-TV’s director of productions, raised a number of concerns related to turning over the Alcoa footage to the Senate committee. When UNC-TV records an interview, it is with the understanding that the material will only be used by UNC-TV, Vickery wrote. Therefore, releasing material for other purposes without consent of person interviewed could damage relationship between UNC-TV and the public.

“By setting this precedent, UNC-TV could be viewed as an agent of the General Assembly,” Vickery said.

Turning over Vajda’s work tapes to the Senate committee would cast doubt on UNC-TV’s impartiality and objectivity and represented a breach of journalism ethics, she added. In the end, Howe determined “there seems to be little we can do but comply.”

“While we do not believe the General Assembly should request our work tapes, they have, and it appears it is within their right to do so,” Howe wrote. “To resist this demand for materials would further raise suspicions that we are hiding or suppressing material… we believe complying is the correct legal, moral and ethical thing to do.”

On July 2, UNC-TV turned over 13 disks containing 10 hours, 47 minutes of raw footage shot by Vajda.

Later that day, Howe informed Bowles that Vajda had been working on a series of reports on Alcoa’s operations on the Yadkin River for a series of reports for “North Carolina Now,” but to his knowledge, a documentary did not exist. Bowles replied, stating he had no idea what the documentary shows, but “why not go ahead and show it?” Bowles’ assumption of the existence of a documentary proved correct.

On July 2, Vickery related to Howe and Brooks Skinner, a lawyer for UNC-TV, a conversation she had with Vajda earlier that day.

Vajda informed Vickery that she has been working on the Alcoa story on her personal computer at home.

“She says there is no documentary as has been reported in various news articles,” Vickery wrote. “But Eszter does have pages of script and a sound-bite montage that runs about an hour in length.”

On July 6, the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee played Vajda’s 56-minute documentary, “The Alcoa Story,” for committee members and Alcoa executives in attendance. Rather than using the UNC-TV logo in the documentary, Vajda used her own self-styled “EV” logo.

Vickery also reported that Vajda informed her that Martin Sansone, a close personal friend, had been working on the Alcoa story for the past six months as a researcher, but had done no editorial work on the project. One day prior to Vickery’s meeting with Vajda, she had sent the reporter an e-mail notifying Vajda that she would no longer be able to work from home, and reminded her that all the material and tapes she had collected for the Alcoa story were the property of UNC-TV.

Spheres of influence and hidden agendas

The first indication that Vajda had a hidden agenda regarding the Alcoa story and was operating outside the knowledge of her supervisors at UNC-TV came in an e-mail sent to WUNC-FM reporter Laura Leslie on June 30.

In response to Leslie’s inquiry about Vajda’s response to possibly being subpoenaed by Hartsell and the Senate Judiciary II Committee, Vajda wrote: “This is something I’m happy with! Will not impact others trust me! This is off record!!! Hartsell is saving my ass!” While UNC-TV management was working furiously to find a legal foundation to fight Hartsell’s subpoena, Vajda appeared to be thrilled by this dangerous precedent.

“In the beginning I na’vely thought Sen. Hartsell was doing me a favor,” Vajda explained in an e-mail. “And let me tell you, that feeling went out the door very quickly! The subpoena was certainly not something I expected, certainly didn’t know about it, but did think that maybe UNC-TV would finally realize the importance of this story!” For Vajda, the Senate Committee hearing offered her an audience for the documentary she had worked on for more than a year. But the manner in which Vajda, a six-year veteran of UNC-TV, gathered the information for the Alcoa story reveals serious breaches of journalism ethics. In addition, Vajda’s dispute with UNC-TV management over the format of the Alcoa report was a source of constant friction and appeared to have played a role in Vajda’s dismissal at the hands of her bosses on Aug. 17.

UNC-TV associate general manager Gail Zimmerman declined to comment on the reasons why Vajda was fired, stating it was a personnel matter.

UNC-TV public records reveal that Vajda formed a number of close alliances with opponents of Alcoa’s re-licensing efforts while working on her investigative report. The existence of these alliances casts serious doubt on Vajda’s impartiality and objectivity while producing her documentary, The Alcoa Story.

On April 1, Vajda sent an e-mail to Roger Dick, a Stanly County community activist and one of Alcoa’s most outspoken critics, and thanked him for dinner.

“I am really excited about this project and prospects of a new friendship with you,” Vajda wrote.

On April 6, Vajda sent an e-mail to Richard Morgan, a former NC Speaker of the House and a paid consultant for the NC Water Rights Committee, stating:

“Incidentally, excellent maneuvering on this project! I look forward to sharing more info, ensuring we meet our objectives, as well as pick up some of your tricks. :)” The NC Water Rights Committee is an advocacy group composed of citizens adamantly opposed to Alcoa’s attempts to re-license the water rights to the Yadkin River.

On April 7, Morgan replied to Vajda’s e-mail regarding NC Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco’s visit to Howe regarding the Alcoa story.

“Eszter, on the surface Tom being skeptical is not surprising but evident that Keith does know how to work magic and used only one rabbit,” Morgan wrote. “He has many more up his sleeve from my observation and a willingness to make this personal… I am very pleased at this turn of events that allows you a better opportunity to use your talents to get a real-life story told.”

Subsequent e-mails between Vajda and Crisco reveal the “better opportunity” Morgan was referring to. On June 28, Crisco paid a personal visit to UNC-TV. According to Hartsell, Crisco went to the station to ask them about running a program about the Alcoa controversy or “turning over the footage to the Department of Commerce so they could put it together.”

Crisco met with Vickery, who denied his request. UNC-TV documents reveal that Sansone was the one who composed the video footage release form for Crisco.

Vajda acknowledged that she was aware of Sansone’s actions and did not divulge that information to UNC-TV management. Vajda said she and Sansone were “weighing all options” but denies ever negotiating or orchestrating taking the footage away from UNC-TV. Sansone admitted that the agreement included an option for “the material to be edited and prepared by Eszter as a third party to work with it at some point in the future.”

Vajda’s end-run around UNC-TV management came after several months of internal debate about the format of The Alcoa Story. Vajda lobbied hard for UNC-TV to present the Alcoa story as a full-length documentary rather than three or four “North Carolina Now” segments.

In an April 27 e-mail to Morgan, Vajda’s frustration is palpable.

‘The only bone they are throwing is trying to force me into providing them with four small snippets to be aired on NC NOW… They insist the project needs to be passed by the editorial board consisting of managers at UNC-TV who are all controlled by Shannon & Tom. SO WE HAVE A PROBLEM!’

“The only bone they are throwing is trying to force me into providing them with four small snippets to be aired on NC NOW,” she wrote. “They insist the project needs to be passed by the editorial board consisting of managers at UNC-TV who are all controlled by Shannon & Tom. SO WE HAVE A PROBLEM!” Several days prior to Crisco’s visit to UNC-TV, Hartsell and Sen. Stan Bingham (R-Davidson) asked Sen. Marc Basnight, president pro tem of the Senate, to place a call to Tom Howe to inquire about the status of the Alcoa story.

In his reply to Basnight, Howe denied any internal or external influence by anyone including Alcoa regarding the editorial or production processes associated with the project.

“I have no knowledge why they were under that impression,” Vickery said. “At no time did we ever attempt to suppress the story. We have long seen the water rights issue as a very important issue — that’s why the assignment was made.”

Vajda categorically denies ever telling Hartsell or Bingham that UNC-TV was caving to pressure from Alcoa and had no plans to air the story. Bingham said he couldn’t recall where he first heard rumors that Alcoa was attempting to suppress the story, but said he found it hard to believe that Alcoa didn’t attempt to exert some measure of influence over UNC-TV once it learned about Vajda’s documentary.

“I’m not na’ve enough to think that Alcoa would sit idly by and not do anything,” Bingham said. “They would make a phone call. Alcoa’s also smart enough to know that it’s not the kind of shit you put in an e-mail.”

The question of whether Alcoa exerted any pressure on UNC-TV arose in the Senate committee hearing on July 6.

Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Avery) asked Alcoa vice-president Bill O’Rourke if the company made any threats, legal or otherwise, to UNC-TV regarding it’s airing of the “North Carolina Now” episodes.

“I know of none,” O’Rourke said. “I know there were discussions that went on and they talked about it. But threats, I know of none.”

Still, Hartsell said Howe’s response was not encouraging because he didn’t offer a specific airdate for the “North Carolina Now” segments on Alcoa. So Hartsell placed a call to Secretary Crisco, which he said led to Crisco’s visit to UNC- TV on June 28. Crisco did not return calls for this story.

Conflict-of-interest issues continued to follow Vajda throughout her production of The Alcoa Story documentary. UNC-TV documents reveal a fiduciary relationship between Morgan and Sansone. On April 7, Morgan agreed to pay Sansone $3,000 for his work as a consultant for the NC Water Rights Committee. Sansone’s dual role as consultant for an advocacy group and Vajda’s researcher and collaborator casts even more doubt on Vajda’s credibility.

Lasting impact?

Vajda denies orchestrating the subpoena issued by Hartsell, but her actions appear to have set of a chain reaction that led to a dangerous precedent: a legislative body demanding privileged journalistic materials. Despite the unfortunate turn of events, Vickery said UNC-TV will continue its coverage of the Alcoa controversy.

“The mission of UNC-TV has not changed since what happened this summer,” Vickery said. “Credibility and integrity are the foundation of UNC-TV.”

However, revelations contained in the UNC-TV documents have given Alcoa plenty of ammunition.

“The documents revealed what we suspected was going on for a long time,” Alcoa spokesman Mike Belwood said. “The UNC- TV reports were carefully coordinated by people who were working against our relicensing application and working within the North Carolina General Assembly to take our property.”

Bingham said Alcoa’s attempts to frame the argument as a propertyrights issue is simply inaccurate.

“I’ve been disappointed in the fact that Alcoa has preached to the public that we are taking private property, and that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Bingham said.

Bingham estimates that Alcoa stands to make $300 million to $400 million in annual revenue from the electricity generated by its four hydroelectric dams, while the state gets no compensation for the use of the water.

“Now the water is polluted, the soil is polluted and we have no jobs,” Bingham said, referring to the 2007 closing of the Badin Works facility. “It’s doesn’t make a damn if it’s a lie or not. If it’s a hot issue, you can slant the truth in this and say we’re taking property. People are madder than hell about this — that’s what people hear and that’s what is long-lasting. That’s what’s happened here, the bastards, Alcoa, have told a lie.”

Dean Naujoks, the Yadkin Riverkeeper, said the UNC-TV controversy has served only as a distraction from what’s really at stake in the battle for the Yadkin.

“I think sadly the media has completely lost sight of the real issues: the fact that people have died and are dying from Alcoa’s toxic operations,” Naujoks said, “the fact that the second-largest river flowing into the Atlantic Ocean could fall into the hands of Alcoa for the next 50 years, the fact that people have died and are dying, and this important resource could be lost for a generation to a corporation that has no interest in benefiting the people of the state. That’s a far more important story than Eszter Vajda.”

Chuck Melton, a former member of the High Rock Lake Association, is strongly opposed to Alcoa being granted another 50-year license by FERC. Melton said he was devastated when he learned of Vajda’s actions.

“I’m obviously disappointed in Eszter and how she handled the story at UNC-TV,” Melton said.

However, area polls reveal that Davidson residents are still opposed to Alcoa’s re-licensing efforts by a 3-to-1 margin, and Melton said he finds it interesting that Alcoa has not refuted any of the facts contained in Vajda’s documentary The Alcoa Story or the three segments that aired on “North Carolina Now.”

UNC-TV controversy aside, Naujoks said the members of the Yadkin River Alliance will continue their quest to return the Yadkin River to its rightful owner: the people of North Carolina.

“Nothing with this issue has changed anything that we do,” he said. “We are moving forward with the legal case.”

On Sept. 10, Administrative Law Judge Joe Webster heard arguments from attorneys representing Stanly County and the Yadkin Riverkeeper regarding its motions for summary judgment of a petition to declare invalid a 401 water quality certification permit issued by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to Alcoa last year.

Melton said the statewide media has been woefully inadequate in reporting this very important story, which has political, economic and public health ramifications for all North Carolinians. He commended Vajda for delving into a story that other reporters and media outlets appear reluctant to cover.

“I would like to see evidence of DENR’s relationship with Alcoa during the re-licensing process,” Melton said. “Alcoa did a lot of things — handing out parcels of land and naming them after people — each interest group got a trinket during the re-licensing process that bought their silence or their advocacy.

“Alcoa is still purporting itself to be a good environmental steward, but Alcoa has never denied any of the facts in the Eszter Vajda documentary,” he added.

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