How did reporters miss the Craig arrest?

  • Article by: Kate Parry
  • Star Tribune Reader's Representative
  • September 1, 2007 - 5:27 PM

Every day, Star Tribune reporters make extensive "cop checks" and "court checks" in an elaborate system intended to ensure nothing important or just plain interesting slips through the justice system unobserved.

They go to police departments and courts in Minneapolis and St. Paul at least twice a day to review dockets, searching for unusual crimes or well-known names. More checks are made in online police and court records. Reporters check with smaller jurisdictions twice a day by phone.

How, then, was it possible for the newspaper to miss the arrest in early June of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after an airport police officer working undercover in a bathroom said he observed Craig signaling he wanted to engage in "lewd conduct"?

And then, how could the newspaper miss the story again in early August when the Idaho Republican filed a guilty plea with Hennepin County District Court to a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge?

That's what readers have asked all week after the Washington newspaper Roll Call broke the story late Monday afternoon in an e-mail alert that roused Washington from its snoozy August congressional break. Soon the story was plastered all over CNN.

"I don't understand why the Star Tribune didn't have the Senator Craig story back in June," e-mailed Jane Burnham, who lives with her two kids in Minneapolis and works for a nonprofit. "This happened in our own backyard -- can you guys only cover the fair and bridge? What else are we missing?"

Martin Alpert of Wayzata e-mailed, wondering if the paper missed the story or "was there a decision by someone at the paper not to publish the story?"

The newspaper didn't know about or withhold the story. The reasons it didn't get the story sooner reveal a fault line in the checks system, made worse by bad luck and a distracting tragedy:

Fault line: Police reporters don't do daily checks at the airport -- usually considered a low-risk gap in the checks system. So the arrest went undetected in June. The newsroom needs to revisit whether some kind of daily check with airport police is needed at a time when airports are more often making news.

Stroke of bad luck No. 1: Even if a reporter had seen the arrest report, there was nothing at the top of it to make it stand out. "We probably wouldn't pause at a gross misdemeanor," said reporter Tom Ford. "If no one was hurt, the person has an unremarkable name and it's not part of some grand scheme, we wouldn't pick it up and read further." It was page three of the report before it listed Craig's occupation as "Senator -- Idaho." Except for ardent political reporters, the bland name Larry Craig was unlikely to trigger interest.

Stroke of bad luck No. 2: Craig did not appear in court on Aug. 8 for sentencing, but had filed a guilty plea to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and was fined $575. (He said Saturday he will resign his Senate seat effective Sept. 30, but maintained he "did nothing wrong" at the airport and said he regrets his guilty plea.) Misdemeanor charges are not kept in a public area in Hennepin County, so reporters only see them if they ask about a specific case.

Distracting tragedy: Craig entered a guilty plea just after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. Reporters were distracted and often displaced from their normal work. So were many city and county officials. Courthouse sources sometimes tip off reporters when there's a case worth checking more closely. That didn't happen.

"I wasn't happy about it, but I'm not mad at any of our people," said Duchesne Drew, assistant managing editor for local news. "To me, the MAC's information shutdown on Tuesday is the bigger issue. It's a public agency in a public space."

The Roll Call e-mail alert arrived about 3:45 p.m. Minneapolis time Monday. Reporters here began trying to advance it, seeking the arrest report and any mug shots -- routine requests. By the time they were directed by Airport Police to the Metropolitan Airports Commission's public-information office, they were told the administrative offices had closed at 4 p.m. and they couldn't get a copy until Tuesday. Without that, there was little they could do to advance the story. Washington correspondent Kevin Diaz tried working his sources but also came up dry. On Tuesday, a story from wire services ran on Page A1.

The reporters tried again Tuesday to get the arrest report and learn the extent of the investigation by airport police into illegal sexual activity in bathrooms used by the 35 million people who travel through the enormous public facility each year. "It's been very frustrating trying to get this information," said David Chanen, who has 15 years of experience seeking information from Minnesota police departments. "I've never run into anything like this, at least locally. Not the FBI -- I can't think of any law-enforcement agency where it's this difficult to get public information."

Reporters trying to talk with Airport Police Chief Mark Rosenow were told they couldn't talk directly to police sources but had to work through the MAC's public-information office, Chanen said. As Tuesday ended, reporters still didn't have the number of people arrested in the broader investigation, or those arrest reports.

Ford said he wanted to ask Rosenow basic questions: How many people had been arrested? What was the time frame of the arrests? Is the activity at this airport more than at other airports? What kind of resources were police devoting?

These are questions any parents who let their sons use the airport bathrooms over the summer would likely want to know.

When I called Kathleen Bangs, the MAC's manager of marketing and public affairs, late Wednesday to ask who at the MAC was blocking the release of public information and access to public officials, she said, "I don't think any public information is being withheld."

Shortly after my call to Bangs and after Chanen filed a formal, written request, reports on the 40 people arrested in situations similar to Craig's were released. It's been a slow process requiring far more hounding than usual to get public information.

"It took longer than we hoped, and we expected to redact" the private data in the arrest reports, said Jeff Hamiel, the MAC's executive director, adding that "later is always worse than sooner because it looks like you're withholding something."

Yup. Sure does.

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