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Conflict of Asterisks

All journalists drive a narrative of a news story. Some narratives are innocuous such as a business profile or the coverage of a wildfire. The reader is clear on the purpose of those articles.

After we read the Chieftain reporting we, like you, very much believed that Pueblo County Director of Transportation Greg Severance and Pueblo City Council members Ami Nawrocki, Sandy Daff and, recently-resigned, Chris Kaufman were guilty of serious crimes.

This story has resulted in the resignation of one council member, Kaufman, and could potentially result in two recalls.

We read the emails, and they reveal a story that is much more intertwined than Severance guiding three council members. What is the purpose of telling this story? Is it news? An investigation? Activist journalism? Between reading the reporting and reading the emails it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Here’s why.

Buried near the end of the 1,186 pages of emails between various council members, former council members, Severance and citizens is a forwarded email Severance sent Chieftain Assistant Publisher Jane Rawlings, Business Editor Dennis Darrow, former Editorial Page Editor Jeff Holmquist and reporter Jeff Tucker on May 27.

“Thank you all again for the help you are providing us. It’s working. And as Jane [Rawlings] would say- it’s Pueblo’s turn.”

Illegal Pueblo email meetings by The Pueblo Chieftain & Star-Journal Publishing Corp.

Severance writes that the articles, which he calls “messaging” articles, done by Tucker, Darrow and Holmquist have helped his lobbying for the TIGER grant and additional funding for transportation in Pueblo, Southern and Southeastern Colorado.

“Dennis – you may not know it but the article you did bringing Legacy in, was absolutely perfect and an excellent example of the messaging we need to send to USDOT,” Severance wrote.

Severance goes on to suggest to the four what he needs to further his lobbying- “another article followed by an editorial with these quotes mid-June. I will be sending them over next week.”

After the announcement of adding seven variable messaging signs, Severance suggested bringing CDOT safety office partners to the Chieftain offices to explain everything. Then, another article and editorial would be in order.

And, finally, he ends the email with a thank you.

An editorial quoting Severance appears in the Chieftain on the same day, May 27.

“We look forward to seeing crews on the job, even if it means delays along the way,” the editorial stated on the issue of the multiple Colorado Department of Transportation projects Pueblo County would be experiencing in the coming months.

In an email on June 21, Severance reveals that the Chieftain may be able to help in another area of business.

Severance sends an email to Gina Nance, Plant Manager at Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, which helps fuel the cement plant by burning tires. This time, the email is about Severence’s son, Ryan Severance, a reporter at the Chieftain.

Illegal Pueblo email meetings by The Pueblo Chieftain & Star-Journal Publishing Corp.

“Did you know you were interviewed by my son yesterday? He came over last. He wants to do a follow up on HB-14-1352. Where will you get your tire supply in the near future now that this stupid bill passed? He wants to help you. Maybe get that bill reversed next year.” Greg Severance wrote to Nance.

None of this email exchange was reported. There’s also no articles, editorials or further writing by the Chieftain on CDOT or Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, but it does raise suspicion. Are there more of these types of emails? Has Severance “coached” the Chieftain, or is it his ego at work?

The three major subjects that appear in the massive email chain between Severance and the council members are mandatory trash hauling, the RTA project and the use of PEDCO money.

The emails between Nawrocki and Severance only start to discuss half-cent issues as city council was hosting public forums for public input on what Kaufman calls the Great Pueblo Payback, using half-cent money for improvement projects. These emails are nearly a month after initial reports surfaced of this new half-cent ballot proposal.

Back in late April, the city had already fielded two requests for records from the Chieftain. During a city council meeting City Manager Sam Azad says he believes the requests are regarding “half-cent concerns”.

First, there was a request for 413 emails. Then in late April, the city provided their executive session tapes after concerns were raised to determine if an executive session discussing half-cent plans was held illegally.

Days after council voting to turn over the tapes, the Chieftain takes the unprecedented position of printing a front page editorial, condemning council for its half-cent plans while asserting council had acted illegally for discussing these plans behind the scenes.

The front-page editorial along with the reporting left out one important detail. The Chieftain is a member, and has been for quite some time, of PEDCO. As a paying member, the Chieftain, as all members do, benefits from PEDCO.

“In addition to being a piece of economic development, our members have inside information of PEDCO news through member communications and quarterly membership meetings,” PEDCO’s website states. “Members have access to news and the trends happening in economic development from around the region and country.”

The entity responsible for reporting on Pueblo tax policy, PEDCO and city council is not completely independent. As a member of PEDCO, the Chieftain becomes emerged in the story, and perhaps even helps create the story by having a say in what investments should be made, or not be made, in the community.

What role did that play in reporting? It may be none, but it’s a question that has to be asked- especially when the conflict of interest hasn’t been recognized by the Chieftain in its reporting.

When the illegal-email story broke on August 3, it led to a week of constant coverage. Now, Kaufman has resigned saying the Chieftain’s reporting, which he calls a “smear,” has hurt him, his career and his family. The Pueblo County Commissioners fired Severance on August 27 for his role.

Nawrocki and Daff both face recalls.

Since the Chieftain’s report, council has changed its position on hiring a trash consultant to deal with illegal dumping. There’s also uncertainty of what role this will play in how council decides to fund the Regional Tourism Act project at the Pueblo Convention Center and what impact this has on PEDCO and half-cent policies.

What do you think?

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Written by Kara Mason

Profile photo of Kara Mason

Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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