Spotlight PA and The Caucus reported last October that the state’s top Republican senator, Joe Scarnati, used his campaign funds to dine at Europe’s oldest restaurant — among other expenses — on a tour through Austria and Germany.
Now the lawmaker wants journalists to pick up the tab for the records they used to expose his spending while he was 4,300 miles away from his constituents.
The senator filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County magisterial district court last month, seeking a total of $6,070 from The Caucus — and personally from reporters Brad Bumsted of The Caucus and Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA. The journalists paid for copies of the records but now Scarnati wants $5,070 to cover costs for the accounting firm that prepared them and the rest to cover legal fees.
The lawsuit comes 10 months after the reporters published their story and nearly two years after the Department of State told Scarnati he could not bill for the accounting and legal services. So why now?
The senator’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But the news outlets suspect something’s up.
“I don’t know what their motivations are for doing that,” Chris Baxter, Spotlight’s editor-in-chief, told me. “Regardless we don’t think there’s any basis for it.”
Tom Murse, editor of The Caucus, said the lawsuit “is a clear attempt to intimidate reporters for The Caucus and Spotlight PA but all journalists and citizens who dare to hold candidates for public office accountable.”
What makes the situation unusual is that the senator named the reporters individually in his lawsuit. If he wins a favorable judgment, the charges could create problems for reporters’ credit records if they appeal the ruling rather than pay up.
“By naming the individual journalists in what is essentially a debt collection action, any decision by the district court, even if overturned on appeal, could have serious negative consequences on the credit reports for the two reporters,” Baxter said. “That to me is really the most concerning piece of this.”
PG strike looming?
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has launched a national search for a new managing editor as the News Guild of Pittsburgh and other unions continue to ramp up for a potential labor strike against the Post-Gazette.
The newspaper’s new executive editor Stan Wischnowski announced to the staff by email Monday that Karen Kane, the managing editor, has been moved to deputy editorial director. She had previously worked in the opinion section before being promoted in January.
“In her new role, she will work closely with Keith Burris to provide strong opinion leadership for the PG,” Wischnowski wrote.
Burris had the unusual role of overseeing both the newspaper’s opinion and news sections before Wischnowski took over the news operations earlier this month.
At the same time, employees’ strike threats continue to grow louder. The international NewsGuild has unanimously approved a strike by newsroom employees. That means the workers need only to get the final go-ahead from the executive council and president of their parent union, the Communications Workers of America.
Post-Gazette employees conducted informational picketing outside the newspaper’s North Shore building last Friday. They are planning what Guild president Mike Fuoco is calling a “MAJOR rally” by the Allegheny/Fayette County Central Labor Council outside the building this Friday (Sept. 25).
He added in a tweet that the newspaper employees “need the practice for what’s coming soon.”
Comings & Goings
- WESA-FM has named Marylee Williams as editor and producer of The Confluence, its daily magazine program. Williams comes to Pittsburgh after working for NPR stations in Baton Rouge, La., Wisconsin Public Radio and Columbus, Ohio, where she produced a two-hour daily talk show.
- Tanisha Thomas has joined Trib Total Media as social media coordinator on its digital desk.
- Julia Felton, 21, one of the Trib’s first two Jim Borden Memorial Scholarship winners, continues to work part-time for the news outlet and will become a full-time employee upon graduation. The other, Megan Swift, 19, returned to Penn State University and will return in 2021 for a second summer internship rotation. The scholarship is named for the Trib’s late managing editor, offering students financial assistance of up to $30,000, annual summer internships and a guaranteed job at graduation.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.