Going the Extra Mile on Disclosure
Colin Woodard has a lot of enemies.
I know. I’ve heard from a sizable portion of them in the last two days, ever since the first part of Woodard’s lengthy biography of Republican Gov. Paul LePage appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of the Portland Phoenix.
They all told me the same thing: Woodard has an undisclosed conflict of interest that’s colored his reporting on LePage in a negative fashion. They say Woodard’s wife works for Eliot Cutler’s OneMaine political action committee. Cutler, an independent, lost a close election for governor to LePage in 2010 and is widely expected to run against him again in 2014. Many political observes, including me, see OneMaine as his campaign committee in waiting.
There’s no doubt Sarah Skillin Woodard is involved with OneMaine. She’s listed on the PAC’s website as its policy and development officer. Her duties include “developing the criteria and process the organization will use in identifying promising legislative candidates. Sarah will also be assisting the organization with fundraising and coalition building efforts.”
That reads as if she has a political role at a political organization, one that promises to “actively support candidates for the Maine legislature who share our goals and values.”
Should Colin Woodard have disclosed his wife’s involvement with OneMaine?
He responded to that question by email, saying he didn’t think it was necessary because Sarah Woodard, who’s a full-time graduate student, is a volunteer, not a paid employee of OneMaine.
“She of course has a right to her own political interests and preferences; it doesn't neccessarily (sic) mean we share views,” he wrote. “We discussed her desire to be involved in OneMaine, as it would give ammunition to those who don't like my investigative reporting. But she's a social work graduate student and felt this would be an excellent opportunity to gain experience in the policy world in a nonpartisan venue.
“Of course, I won't be writing about OneMaine, and would disclose my wife's volunteering there in any piece I were to write about Cutler, or about LePage if she's still there and Cutler becomes a candidate against him.”
He added that his wife’s involvement with OneMaine and as a supporter of Cutler’s 2010 campaign was no secret, since she had mentioned it frequently on Facebook and other online sites.
He also called it “revealing” that the connection was brought to my attention the day the LePage piece appeared.
Woodard is a first-rate investigative reporter and a respected author of several books. His work on the LePage bio was funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, which (in spite of intimations to the contrary from a disgruntled Republican) has no partisan or ideological bent.
There’s no doubt that the first part of Woodard’s piece on LePage makes no effort to paint the governor in a flattering light. But neither does it go out of its way to portray him in a negative way. It seems to be even-handed in reporting on his life through his college years. Whether the second installment is skewed one way or the other remains to be seen, but if any of LePage’s political foes were looking for ammunition to use against him in this story, so far, they’ve come up empty.
All that said, I still think Woodard’s critics are right. He should have disclosed his wife’s political activity, even though it has only a tenuous connection to this piece of work. The reason is simple. If he’d added a short disclaimer to that effect, his critics, not all of them from the GOP, wouldn’t have been emailing me to expose him. He’d have cleared the air in advance and headed off these behind-the-scenes attacks.
For the record, Woodard disagrees with me. In an email, he said he felt readers would have found such a disclaimer “odd.”
Maybe, but that’s seems to be preferable to the alternative, which is that the lack of disclosure fueled the rumor mill and gave Woodard’s many enemies an opening they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
(A couple of disclosures of my own: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix. Woodard is a frequent contributor to this Website’s parent magazine.)
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.