When you're on hidden camera, it's already over. That's especially true if you're on Local 6's hidden cameras.
Last week, WKMG aired its incessantly hyped series of reports on LYNX officials attending a September transportation expo in Las Vegas. In light of recent route cutbacks and a fare increase at the public bussing authority, it was definitely a bad time to send 17 staffers on a boozy junket.
But let's get one thing straight: For all the grainy, shot-from-the-hip footage, for all the slavish us-too coverage in Orlando Sentinel, for all the hand-wringing from county chairman Rich Crotty, nothing illegal or immoral happened. What we got from Vegas was footage of people acting like people act in Vegas. Stop the presses.
Local 6 reporter Wendy Saltzman's language was clear and urgent: "Board members -- gambling and drinking during the expo hours." Conventioneers, gambling and drinking -- in Las Vegas? Saltzman and crew recorded LYNX officials "gambling away the afternoon, while the conference continued down the hall," adding that they were "betting you wouldn't find out."
In reality, the trip was neither secretive nor unethical. While LYNX covered airfare, hotel and convention costs for the attendees, the agency didn't cover gambling expenses. The "gotcha" was Local 6 finding some officials gambling while the conference was in session. In one now-infamous clip, cameras "caught" LYNX spokesman Ben Hardcastle at the blackjack table at 3:09 p.m. Sept. 25. Hardcastle says he was, in fact, at that day's session from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. "I was there for the entire session."
According to the conference program, the day's session ended at 3:15 p.m., meaning Hardcastle actually cut out six minutes early! (An Orlando Weekly exclusive!) Add a little creative editing from Local 6, and you've got a big story about public graft and corruption.
Of course, they were counting on the fact that the folks back home in Orlando aren't used to salty casino banter and midday cocktails. Had the conference been held in Orlando, would we have seen grainy footage of LYNX directors on Space Mountain?
The investigation continued when Saltzman followed officials to "a high-priced dinner at the Mandalay Bay Hotel," where "even the cheapest dish on the menu is $35." Then there was the shaky video of their "stretch limousine" ride to the restaurant. "While you take the bus," intoned Saltzman, "five LYNX board members, two top executives and two of their spouses were being wined and dined by a former LYNX contractor."
Government officials being wined and dined by a lobbyist? Get Jeb on the phone! And when was the last time Wendy Saltzman rode a LYNX bus?
Parsons Brinckerhoff, the contractor in question, has indeed done business with LYNX in the past. But the last transaction between the two was four years ago, when the firm designed a light-rail proposal. As long as the diners report the meal to the state within 60 days, there is no ethics violation.
Saltzman says Local 6 followed the LYNX staffers to Vegas with "no expectations" of what they'd find. That seems a little hard to believe. No news agency flies a reporter, cameraman and producer across the country without a solid idea of what they'll get in return. The only unexpected result of this story is the mileage WKMG is getting from it.
Orlando Sentinel reporter Jim Stratton picked up the story on Oct. 30 (and failed to credit Local 6 for their exclusive until Nov. 2), mirroring many of the original report's allegations without additional analysis. Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas, who usually uses his Sunday pulpit to lambaste the week's big story, jumped right on board Nov. 3. He noted the "absurd" $5,000 cost for LYNX to hire a PR consultant to handle the story, saying, "You hire public relations firms to hide from the public."
WKMG says they have their sights set on many other public agencies and they promise more "Problem Solvers" exclusives during the November sweeps period. Which means we'll be treated to more grainy footage of people engaged in perfectly legal, ethical endeavors. Sure beats watching the real news.