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What the Devil won't tell you

Heraldgate is needlessly spinning out of control on Ally Miller

My mom had a friend named Jan who wouldn't ski. She refused to put pointy ends down, certain she would run into a tree — and no one could tell her differently. Then one winter, when everyone was skiing (pre-snowboarding mind you), she decided she would look cute in ear muffs and decided to give it a whirl. She still thought she'd hit a tree but this jacket went with those pants and well, boys were skiing. That was Jan.

Jan bought her skis, boots, poles, earmuffs, mittens, a ski jacket and snowpants and went to the mountain to give it a try, bitching about trees the whole time. So, we put her on a run called 80 Acres. It was a Green Circle run meant for novices. Gentle grade. Broad-shouldered. In the middle of 80 Acres was a single fenced-off sapling struggling to reach toward the sky. Picture the Charlie Brown tree's "special little brother" and you get the idea. We had 79.9999 acres of snow and .0001 acres of tree. Guess why Jan broke her thumb on her very first run, never to ski again? And for the next year what did Jan feel? Blessed vindication. She had indeed, hit a tree. They were out to get her.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller and the "Arizona Daily Herald."

I've put off penning a column on this ongoing saga after consulting with Sentinel Editor Dylan Smith, because the Devil can't tell you what makes no sense in 12 different directions. Now we know for sure Miller aide Tim DesJarlais has reversed course and admitted he started the sham news website and pretended to be a reporter when contacting Miller's political opponents. And we now know for sure that Miller uses her private email and Facebook to conduct government business, even though she said that she doesn't. And now all hell is breaking loose.

After Miller walked out of a bizarre County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, it's clear this story is rapidly gyrating out of her control. She's playing a losing game of "why are you hitting yourself?" Supervisor Miller needs to stop, take a breath and fully comply with public records requests and be open and transparent. The Herald saga is a ridiculous reason to lose a political career. 

It's a curiosity turned scandal because it meets both the "'there' there" test or 11 Word Question threshold. Neither should have been. 

'There,' there Ally

"Is there any 'there' there?" is a relic of the Clinton Whitewater investigation. Much of the drama and scandal involved the Clintons' own reticence to turn over information they thought was privileged. Eventually someone asked, "is there any 'there' there?'" Was there an actual Whitewater crime to investigate or were his opponents just trolling for one?

Is there any "there" there? With Miller and the Herald? Initially, there was hardly anything. No. 

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DesJarlais spent a month denying that he had anything to do with a flash-in-the-pan sham news website that sprung up called the "Arizona Daily Herald." People were suspicious because the editor's name was "Jim Falken" — the same as the online avatar DesJarlais had created for himself in high school. The first media query the Herald sent out was asking county supervisor candidates asking if they supported Miller's proposal to redirect Regional Transportation Authority dollars to road repair. DesJarlais first denied having anything to do with it — asking the media to buy a whole lot of coincidences — and Miller defended him. Turned out he did. She was wrong. He had lied.

Fine. Wonderful. But did he do anything wrong to lie about?

Barely.

There's nothing wrong or illegal about setting up on an online news publication. 

OK, he might have done some posts on company time. That's not a scandal. It's a personnel issue. It's fodder for a purist's outrage that fails the real-world test. What matters is the degree to which it affects the work that needs to be done. DesJarlais was an at-will employee and it's Miller's decision to do what she will about that. And personally, I think practicing journalism is less egregious than surfing Match.com, Tinder or selling stuff on eBay. If he's getting the job done ... pfffft. 

Even if he did it under Miller's direction on county time and the taxpayer's dime, one could argue that a news site (it's hard to call a site "bogus" if it folded in a day) just a way to keep her constituents informed about what's going on. Many local politicos send out newsletters. The Herald could be called a newsletter on steroids. Even if it was pro-Miller, it's not an illegal campaign contribution so long as he doesn't use the magic words that establish "electioneering."

It would have required disclosure that it came from her office but that's an easy fix. This is dot I's and cross T's stuff. 

Hell, any effort to shut this site down by the county might be considered a violation of the First Amendment. Can a local government shut down a site not hosted by the local government that is critical of the local government? Is that a road we want to go down? Are supervisors going to determine how other elected officials communicate? How is that going to work? No web sites? It's an interesting question and my knee-jerk response would be to to side with Miller on this.

What DesJarlais practiced was poor journalistic ethics. Quick: Name the last political leader brought down because they practiced poor journalistic ethics. That's right. Never. Sure, journalists bringing down people with poor ethics happens a lot. No politico has ever been drummed out of office for defying "off the record" convention.

We here at TucsonSentinel.com and the folks over at the Daily Star care about journalistic ethics. Heck, our editor helped write an industry guidebook on ethics. The rest of the world buys the tabloids and surfs to Gawker. A story about poor journalistic ethics in the age of Breitbart and PolitcsUSA just isn't dog bites man. It's Dog Eats Alpo. The news site story is a curiosity, ripe for a quote about how it's bad journalism and that's that. Back to more interesting stories that grab readers' attention — like Miller's plan for asphalt (heard they're making a movie out of that one).

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If Miller indeed had nothing to do with DesJarlais' pretending to be a reporter, it was at worst a personnel issue worthy of the "like-the-initiative-but" kind of talking-to by the supervisor.

We have traces of "there" in amounts so far below the legal limit, they are tee-totalling along. Until ... 

Found it. 'There' it is is.

The correct response to a the media asking questions about Miller's office being tied to the Arizona Daily Herald was either "yeah, we did it. So?" or "That's Tim's thing. Good for him," or perhaps "I'll talk to him about doing it off the clock, but cool of him to engage the public." The Herald dustup clearly fit the paradigm that you are as guilty as you sound. Miller's office hunkered down, played victim and has looked guilty as hell.

The story grew legs because the story got strange. It broke on a Tuesday. The site was pulled down immediately after the Sentinel interviewed DesJarlais. It was the first of many coincidences you'd have to dismiss to buy DesJarlais' story.

The next day, the Northwest Explorer tracked down DesJarlais at a public meeting. How guilty did he seem? With a camera recording, he answered "no comment" and fled into a bathroom. Press training, Tim: Don't do that. Rule Number One of media crisis management is "There is no drama." And in this case, there was no drama but the drama you created. You're 19. You'll recover.

By the end of the week, Miller was claiming she'd been unduly attacked by the media for even covering the issue. Her office had nothing to do with the perfectly legal, primarily moral web site that defied journalistic ethics. She posted as much on Facebook

I'm glad we have such great news investigators in this town who would accuse a 19 year old University of AZ student of a crime. You ALL ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

Nooo ... none of them would ever commit one of those.

On Friday, Miller and DesJarlais bypassed Tucson police, the Pima County Sheriff's Department, jumped over the state Attorney General's Office and filed criminal complaints with the FBI claiming all that looniness as sacred cloth.

Miller posted on Facebook:

Both Timothy and I have filed complaints with the FBI cybercrimes unit. We have the name and phone number of the individual who posted the photo on the fake fb page that has since been taken down. I have filed a complaint against this individual for interferring [sic] with the office of an elected official. This is a federal crime and I hope this individual is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Then on Saturday, a mysterious online apparition claimed responsibility. The spectral perp was named John R. Dalton Jr. "He" wrote an email saying "he" started the web site and stumbled across the fake name "Jim Falken " and decided to use it. It was just a coincidence that the name happened to be the on-line alter ego of Miller's aide. It was also just a coincidence that "Dalton" decided the first story "he'd" pursue would be Miller's road plan. A further coincidence was that "he" needed a picture from a Board of Supervisor's meeting and was put in touch with DesJarlais, who happened to be the first "Jim Falken." DesJarlais just happened to take a picture and send it to the same "Dalton." 

But wait! Wait! It gets better: There's an actual John R. Dalton Jr., active in local Republican politics, having recently arrived from Michigan. Michigan John Dalton didn't have a clue what the other John R. Dalton, Jr., was all about and started calling the press, understandably asking WTF?

Miller then posted on Facebook a message hoping to get to the bottom of who the real John Dalton was or is or has been, Her mind apparently processed all those coincidences, strangeness and happenstance, then concluded: "Sounds reasonable."  

Someone, Miller suggested, had done the whole "Herald thing" to DesJarlais. The motivation for some perp launching the website, I guess, would be to screw with DesJarlais by practicing amateur community journalism under his nome de plume. I believe that falls under the heading "worst plot ever." It's like me finding out some ex-girlfriend started a restaurant and named it after a former Hotmail account that I set up (say, Saltminer99) and ran the grill 16 hours a day, six days a week just to show me. I mean ... OK ... what?

How do you steal somebody's fake identity anyway?

Then the Herald site started back up and DesJarlais claimed he bought it from "Falken/Dalton."

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Then: we can call off the search. DesJarlais last week, fessed up in the "no Duh" moment of 2016. He was the guy behind the site. No one had stolen his identity, so he and Miller filed false charges and now we have a "there" there. It's a federal there, at that.

I hear you. I hear you. Miller's culpability depends on her knowing that the report was false. That doesn't make it better. Now we are asking the Eleven-Word-Question politicians avoid like straight answers. What did Ally Miller know and when did she know it? Holy Milhous Nixon! it's a -Gate.

'It’s not the crime that gets you… it’s the cover-up.' — Richard Milhous Nixon

With such an absence of original "there," there, the feds say they aren't interested in pursuing whether a 19-year-old kid set up a news site and accused someone of stealing his fake identity. The Sheriff's Department passed as well.

Although Miller told TucsonSentinel.com during Tuesday's meeting that she expects to meet with the feds and TPD, further pursuing the criminal aspect. She said she expects to talk to the feds "hopefully in the near future."

More "there" manifested itself during the meeting when a whole lot of questions were asked about how Miller maintained records and if her office had destroyed any county emails or personal emails about county business. 

Don't worry, Ally. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is free to look into this matter. You remember Chuck, the guy you spent four years making an enemy of? 

Not-so-open government

The Sentinel, Arizona Daily Star and a piggybacking Tucson Weekly have all sought to have Miller's office turn over records relevant to this clusterfudge and Tuesday's board meeting was extraordinary for a public board discussion as it delved into Miller's failure to follow the state's open records law.

It was singular for two reasons. The board agreed to discuss privileged legal advice in public and not executive session. Then the board invited reporters covering the meeting to discuss their problems getting access to documents from Miller's office. That never happens. Never. Ever. 

Among the documents released from the Clerk of the Board's Office are those that tell the story about how Miller's initial response to these requests was to break the law. She got pretty adamant in her attempts to do so.

On June 3, Miller sent an email asking for advice from the County Attorney's Office as to how much her office could charge for redacting the public records. Her opening bid was $1 per page for the first 1,900 pages. Then on June 6, she told Clerk of the Board Robin Brigode to charge TucsonSentinel.com 35 cents per page of redacted material. Brigode then played the good soldier and told the Sentinel, "that will be $665 please." The Sentinel said nice effing try and pointed out that the request was for electronic files. There's no printing required.

On June 7, Miller explained that she would charge the Sentinel 35 cents for every page "due to the review process and the voluminous amounts of data Mr. Smith requested." Arizona's public records law does not have a Voluminous Amounts Premium Data Pricing Plan that elected leaders can charge the public for taking a look at information the public owns.

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Deputy County Attorney Karen Friar clarified the matter, telling Miller in an email later that day, no you can't charge for redacting. All public documents must be available for viewing for free. The only charge legally allowed is the cost of what someone wishes to take with them in a given format. Friar clearly stated that the most the county can charge is $5 for a disk. That's a big step down from the $1,900 Miller originally sought.

So what does Miller, of the 'Law-and-Order Millers," do? She told Friar in a June 8 email that she expected Brigode to follow the law as Miller misinterprets it. She declared she would only make documents available if the news organizations paid her an illegal amount up front. Open and transparent government anyone?

Only when an item was placed on Tuesday's agenda to discuss the release of the confidential advice from the County Attorney's Office — that didn't back Miller — did she start to release documents. The Board voted Tuesday to make public Friar's official opinion, and it mirrored the earlier email she had sent Miller. 

Here's why this is bad. Miller's already starting to (how do I say it ...) make statements conflicting with the truth. Media records requests related to this episode involve her county correspondence from her private email and Facebook accounts. She said she doesn't do that. She does, as is widely known. The Sentinel has been provided with email from her personal accounts in which she instructs her staff. The more threatened Miller feels, the more she is shooting her mouth off and that's not how you approach an official response to a records request — particularly when you know the reporters asking for documents are willing to take you before a judge, even if they're not eager to do so.

Miller's combative nature — that partisans so love — is getting the best of her. Someone in Republican politics needs to sit down with Miller and get her to do no more damage. Tuesday's meeting is all the justification supervisors need to start crawling over Miller's office. And it's over next-to-nothing. I get that "it's not the crime but the cover up." It would just be nice to have a crime before the cover up starts.

To be fair to her, the Sentinel's request was not pint-sized, although it could have been much broader. It's maybe more like King Kong. Her office is midtown Manhattan. Yet her stonewalling response prompts the question, "what does she have to hide?"

The longer this scandal continues, the worse Miller does and the more exposed she is to the enemies she carefully cultivated since her election in 2013.

Because teenagers never fib

The mess reminds me of what a cop once told me in a break room. He had a stock answer for motorists he pulled over when they protested "don't you have something better to do?" He would answer: "Yes. I do. Then you ran a red light and I'm stuck doing this."

That's how I feel writing this column because starting a website is not a scandal. Everything that happened since — a resignation, a false federal crime report, potential exposure to civil litigation from the media and maybe a P.O.-ed Michigan John Dalton, deeper investigations finding more inconsistencies — is positively "gate-ish." It gets to her judgment.

I want to label this scandal FacepalmGate.

Ally, why was it easier for you to believe all those coincidences led to a conspiracy against your office than it was to believe an 19-year-old kid panicked and lied?

Miller went again on social media and explained she "had to take him at his word." Oh, you absolutely did not. Have you met a teenager? I'm not saying he's a bad kid but they've been known to do stupid shit, panic and fib. She's left in the unenviable position of asking us to believe she broke no laws because she has no capacity to deconflict absolute bullshit from the vaguely plausible. That is a terrible trait for someone who serves on the Board of Supervisors.

If Miller's been forthright that she has had nothing to do with DesJarlais' fumbling attempts to play reporter, then she should have nothing to worry about in turning over public documents that were requested more than a month ago.

If you take Miller at her word that she had nothing to do with the "Herald," then this -gate started about nothing. The There-A-Lyzer picked up a smidgen of substance. It's about the initiative of a 19-year-old staffer and his trusting boss standing by him. Maybe it was a moment worthy of some personnel management. It could have been a First Amendment case for the ages. It never should have come to this. All that Miller had to do was avoid that single, spindly, solitary tree in the middle of those powdery 80 acres and she's sipping cocoa in the lodge. Instead, she's fleeing meetings.

In the days after the Herald story broke, a local conservative website that touts Miller's line ran a cartoon of Dylan, the Star's Tim Steller, the Weekly's Jim Nintzel and the Green Valley News' Dan Shearer. Each had a thought bubble suggesting that they were consumed with Miller's destruction.

Sorry, purveyors of personal responsibility. The only person out to get Ally Miller appears to be Ally Miller. She did this all by herself. She needs to undo it by following the law and moving on, while it's still on her terms.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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have your say   

2 comments on this story

2
76 comments
Jun 24, 2016, 12:22 pm
-0 +2

Yeah I also used to dislike Morlock’s pieces however the depth with which he covers complex topics, which is done in so few places, caused me to change my mind. Combine that with the bits of humor thrown in there and they have grown on me.

1
1768 comments
Jun 24, 2016, 9:30 am
-0 +0

Let me begin by saying that I hate reading Morlock’s stuff, and for reasons having nothing to do with subject matter or content. His columns all go on way too long; they should be expressed in a much neater package. What’s worse, he sacrifices articulation and cohesion for failed attempts at humor and wit.

That said, I think I agree with the sentiment he expresses in this particular piece.

DesJardis did personal stuff on the clock. But, as I think Morlock points out, if all his work was already done then who cares. The information that he was prodding political rivals for would have come out in a campaign, or a more established news outlet, anyway.

I personally am willing to write off DesJardis’ antics as the stupidity of youth. He lied, and he gave up his job in an effort to defuse the scandal. I’m not commending him or anything, I am just saying that, at that point, I personally moved on from my interest in DesJardis.

Miller, on the other hand…I don’t know what she is thinking. She should know better. I have no idea what her motives are stonewalling with public records requests, her arbitrary redactions with records she does release, walking out of meetings early, etc etc etc. Why the hell is she doing all of this? DesJardis gave her the greatest gift he could with his resignation: a scapegoat. There really should be nothing to hide here, anyway, as ultimately this isn’t that big of a deal.

I really can’t figure out what the hell Miller is thinking here.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Supervisor Miller during Tuesday's meeting.

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