If a journalist reports on a politician his wife represented, that’s a conflict of interest, right?
Last week, it was very nearly me.
Thursday afternoon, I learned that my wife was the R.T. Rybak for Mayor campaign’s election lawyer in a campaign-finance case brought by the state Republican Party.
Luckily, I hadn’t written about the mayor in awhile. That wasn’t deliberate: MinnPost has others monitoring the finance complaint, and it never became a media controversy for me to dive into.
Still, seeing the name “Sarah Duniway” all over the Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board’s verdict Friday was a near-death experience. A guy who assesses others’ conflicts must be like Caesar’s wife. That requires disclosing some things about my wife, and how we handle our professional obligations.
Sarah is a lawyer for Gray Plant Mooty, specializing in nonprofit law. That means representing everyone from churches, struggling arts groups and charter schools to large health care providers, colleges, universities and civic organizations. As a result, roughly 20 percent of her business is policy- and election-related.
The Rybak thing, as it turns out, was an exception; she rarely represents candidates. For example, Sarah won’t represent anyone in the governor’s race. But that’s because she advises independent groups on election law. A part of her practice involves lefty groups, but she also gives election law advice to a wide array of nonprofits.
At this point, a journalist is faced with two choices: not write about politics, or disclose the conflict and let you, dear reader, factor this in when reading me. I’m doing the latter.
Fortunately, I’ve never been a guy to hide behind phony objectivity; I’ve been pretty open about being a lefty, while remaining a reporter/columnist pursuing facts. I think even ideological critics would admit my worldview doesn’t depend on my wife’s paydays.
So full disclosure and off we go, right? Well, it’s not that simple. I can’t disclose all entanglements with Sarah’s clients because she simply doesn’t tell me who all of them are.
Disclosure is a journalist’s value, but a lawyer’s professional responsibility demands discretion. I’ve never known all of Sarah’s clients — obviously — and I won’t going forward.
I learn client identities in a couple of ways: the client consents, or it becomes public. (See, belatedly: Rybak.)
The Rybak cautionary tale has forced us to clarify our dinner-table ground rules. If I know of a client, I will tell my editors — and you — should professional paths cross. For clients I don’t know about? We’ll all have to treat this as sort of a blind trust. I won’t know the ties exist or professionally benefit from them.
Sarah’s been a lousy source, so I know she’s been discreet about her business. I’ll have to be even more careful about discussing my work when it’s politically related. Unfun, but necessary.
Thankfully, Sarah is not a media lawyer, though one of her cases has affected what I cover. She’s part of a team defending St. Olaf College in a lawsuit brought by fans of WCAL, the religious and classical radio station MPR bought and turned into The Current.
I’ve told my editors I can’t write about the WCAL case, mostly because Sarah and I have talked about that one over the dinner table. (The long-running case is quite public.)
I’ve forwarded any coverage requests for my superiors to farm out. But I haven’t told the rest of the world, so consider this belated disclosure. Although Sarah does not represent MPR, the network is involved because the group SaveWCAL is challenging the sale.
While I’ve disclosed other conflicts regularly in columns, this is as good a place as any to round up paydays since MinnPost’s November 2007 debut:
- Until last spring, I wrote a “Where are they now?” feature for a Minnesota Timberwolves season ticket-holder magazine, a once-a-month gig that predated MinnPost.
- Until early 2008, I was paid to do weekly media analysis on Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered. I asked not to be paid when assuming the media beat here. I make very occasional free appearances these days. I generally say yes to other media requests, for no compensation.
- Also for no pay, but FYI: I also moderate occasional debates, such as one in Minneapolis Ward 9 a couple of weeks ago, and a DFL gubernatorial forum for veterans on Friday.
As for partisanship: I do vote in elections (some journalists don’t) and have participated in DFL caucuses, when so moved, as an extension of voting. I have voted for the occasional Green and even a few Republicans, but not every often. I don’t contribute to or work for candidates, campaigns or issues. My last involvement in such matters came in 2006, when I helped get Instant Runoff Voting approved in Minneapolis. At the time, I was taking time off from journalism to be a housedad.