UNC-TV e-mails reveal power struggle over Alcoa footage

former Unc-tv senior legislative correspondent Eszter Vajda interviews Betsy Osborne, whose husband, Eddie, worked at Alcoa’s Badin Works facility and later died of kidney cancer as part of Vajda’s documentary, The Alcoa Story. Unc-tv fired Vajda on aug. 17. (courtesy photo)

”A former UNC-TV reporter is denying that she helped orchestrate a subpoena issued by the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee for footage she compiled during an investigative story on Alcoa’s efforts to retain control of a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River that includes the aluminum giant’s four hydroelectric dams.

But internal documents released by UNC-TV last week reveal that Eszter Vajda, UNC-TV’s former senior legislative correspondent, was pleased by a highly controversial decision by NC Sen. Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight (D-Dare) to issue a subpoena for all of Vajda’s work tapes on behalf of the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee on July 1.

In a June 30 e-mail to WUNC-FM reporter Laura Leslie, Vajda said the subpoena was “something I’m happy with.”

“Hartsell is saving my ass!” Vajda said. On Aug. 17, UNC-TV fired Vajda, a six-year veteran of the station.

UNC-TV Associate General Manager Gail Zimmerman said Vajda’s dismissal was a personnel issue and declined to comment on the matter.

The more than 5,800 pages of internal documents released by UNC- TV show that the station’s management team was deeply concerned about Hartsell’s actions and opposed turning over Vajda’s work tapes to the committee.

In a June 30 e-mail, UNC-TV Director and General Manager Tom Howe told Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina, that he had recently learned of Hartsell’s pending request. A state agency, UNC-TV is governed by the UNC Board of Governors.

“Work tapes are considered by any journalism organization to be privileged material for the use of those involved in creating a final product,” Howe wrote. “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 asked Bowles to reach out to Hartsell and to persuade the senator to rescind his “inappropriate and precedent-setting request.”

In response, Bowles advised Howe to “ask the lawyers.” “I know you will do what is legally, ethically and morally right,” said Bowles.

Howe updated Bowles in a subsequent e-mail, telling him that UNC- TV’s attorneys had informed him the station was obligated to comply with Hartsell’s request. In response, Bowles said he had no idea what the documentary shows, but “why not go ahead and show it?” Shannon Vickery, UNC-TV’s director of productions, raised a number of concerns related to turning over the Alcoa footage to the Senate committee. In an e-mail to Howe, Vickery cited the fact that when UNC-TV records an interview, it is done with the understanding that the material will only be used by the station, and for no other purpose. The release of material without the express consent of those interviewed could potentially damage the relationship between the station and the public, Vickery wrote. Moreover, by relinquishing control over privileged journalistic material, UNC-TV would be setting a precedent that could make people reluctant to speak to the station’s reporters, said Vickery.

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

Complying with the Senate committee’s subpoena for Alcoa footage would cast doubt on UNC-TV’s impartiality and objectivity, which would be a breach of journalism ethics, Vickery added.

On July 6, Vajda appeared before the NC Senate Judiciary II Committee, and her 56-minute documentary, The Alcoa Story, was screened for legislators, members of the media and the public. Following the screening, committee members grilled Alcoa executives about the company’s environmental stewardship of the Yadkin River.

Three days later, state lawmakers passed a bill that created the Uwharrie Resources Commission, a vehicle that would allow for the state to take control of the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project if the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, rules against Alcoa’s bid to get a new 50-year license.

Vajda said she had repeated conversations with Hartsell, and included his interview in The Alcoa Story documentary, but denies ever speaking to Hartsell about a subpoena. Vajda acknowledged that she had expressed her concerns to Hartsell about UNC-TV management’s decision to present the Alcoa story as three or four segments on “North Carolina Now” rather than as a full-length documentary.

Vajda admitted that she shared her thoughts about UNC-TV’s “reluctance to go after big stories” with Hartsell and other sources, but never asked for a subpoena or for the rights to the footage to be handed over.

“I did give them information and I did tell them [UNC-TV] was sticking by their guns and they were going to have three or four ‘NC

Now’ pieces,” Vajda said.

In retrospect, Vajda acknowledged that the subpoena of the Alcoa footage was “the worst thing that could’ve happened.”

“I briefly thought it was a good thing, but it did the story an infinite amount of harm,” Vajda said. “In that instance, I just didn’t know.”

Documents released by UNC-TV show that Vajda formed close alliances with a number of politicians and special interest groups that adamantly opposed Alcoa’s re-licensing of water rights to the Yadkin River and supported the state’s “recapture” of the resource.

One of those close alliances was with NC Secretary of Commerce Keith Crisco.

Vajda said she had one face-to-face meeting with Crisco while researching her story on Alcoa and Crisco gave her a notebook of all the material that the state had put together concerning the 401 water quality certificate issued by the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR.

Alcoa’s 401 water quality certificate is currently being challenged in court by Stanly County. The county’s petition contends that DENR did not exercise the full scope of its authority under the Clean Water Act, and issued a 401 water quality certification permit knowing that Alcoa was in violation of water quality issues, said Yadkin Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. Vajda acknowledged she remained in close contact with Crisco about the status of her request to develop the Alcoa story into a full-length documentary film.

Crisco’s contact with Howe and Vickery on the Department of Commerce’s intense interest in the Alcoa story is well documented.

On April 6, Howe called a meeting with Vajda, Vickery and news anchor Mitchell Lewis in his office to relate a conversation he had with Crisco about the Alcoa controversy. Howe expressed his belief that it was an important economic and human-interest story.

“We sat in the meeting and Tom Howe said, ‘This is probably the biggest story of my career,’” Vajda recalled. “At some point, I said, ‘This needs to be a documentary,’ but Shannon said, ‘We do not have the resources.’” Calls placed by YES! Weekly to Howe, Vickery, and Lewis were directed to UNC- TV spokesman Steve Volstad, who would not comment for this story. Crisco did not return calls for this story either.

During the April 6 meeting, Vajda said there was discussion of engaging Frontline, the PBS documentary series, or WRAL-TV reporter and documentary filmmaker Clay Johnson to produce the documentary on Alcoa’s re licensing efforts. But Vajda lobbied hard to stay on the story.

“I said, ‘Tom, I’ve already done a lot.

I’ve got enough for a documentary,’” Vajda recalled. Still, Howe did not approve Vajda’s request.

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 Martin Sansone, Vajda’s researcher and collaborator on the Alcoa project, composed a video footage release form for Crisco that would have allowed for UNC-TV to sign over the rights to Vajda’s Alcoa footage to the Department of Commerce.

Vajda said 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 an effort to take 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 also formed a close alliance with Richard Morgan during her investigation of Alcoa’s operations on the Yadkin.

A former NC Speaker of the House and a paid consultant for the NC Water Rights Committee, Morgan paid Sansone $3,000 for his consulting services. E-mails indicate that Sansone needed the funds to help him pay for a flight from England to the United States on April 15. The NC Water Rights Committee has been a vocal opponent of Alcoa’s efforts to win another 50-year license from FERC.

A closer look at the UNC-TV documents reveals an internal power struggle between Vajda and the station’s management over the format of the Alcoa story. It appears that when UNC-TV rejected Vajda’s request to produce a full-length documentary film for broadcast, she appealed to her allies in state government. In fact, Vajda is still demanding the rights to the footage that would appear to be the property of UNC-TV.

“Damn straight I’m asking for the footage rights,” said Vajda. “I did go to Shannon Vickery after my disciplinary hearing and asked her to sign over the footage rights.”

Vickery did not reply to Vajda’s request. “Back then, I didn’t ask for anything,” Vajda continued. “Now I’m asking loudly.”