Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Pittinger ad on Pendergraph: A breakdown

County Commissioner and 9th District Congressional candidate Jim Pendergraph is still steamed about a Robert Pittenger ad accusing him of receiving and hiding an illegal bonus when he retired as Mecklenburg County sheriff. The Observer’s Jim Morrill reported today that at a candidate forum last night in Charlotte, Pendergraph accused Pittenger of lying in the ad, then later reiterated his displeasure offstage after the candidates had waded into the audience.

“You said I took secret taxpayer-funded money,” Pendergraph told Pittenger. “That’s a total lie.”

Did the ad go too far? Curiously, while Pittenger’s web site and YouTube account tout other recent ads, the Pendergraph ad is absent. We found a copy here.

The transcript:

“Lifelong Democrat Jim Pendergraph. The Observer exposed his secret taxpayer-funded bonus that broke government policy. They revealed Pendergraph took your money, thousands of dollars, he didn’t deserve. His secret bonus, hidden from the public for three years. The bureaucrat who gave the huge hike? Jim voted him a pay raise right back. Jim Pendergraph, he'll fit right in, in Washington.”

The ad does what political ads do: cast an opponent’s words or deeds in the most damning light possible, complete with forboding music and unsmiling, unflattering photos. Does this ad go over the line? There’s certainly some questionable elements.

First, some background: Last year, Pendergraph was among the most ardent critics of county manager Harry Jones for negotiating a payoff settlement with departing mental health director Grayce Crockett, then misrepresenting that settlement to the public.

Jones, perhaps bristling from the criticism, subsequently revealed in an email to commissioners that when Pendergraph had retired as sheriff in 2007, Jones had granted Pendergraph pay for 150 more hours of unused vacation leave than the 240 hours county policy allowed for. Jones said he willingly granted Pendergraph an exemption, which he had the authority to do.

Pendergraph said the payment was consistent with what he understood about county policy on unused vacation, so he never questioned it. He also said he didn’t request any special treatment from Jones, who never provided any evidence that he had received such a request from Pendergraph.

Back to the ad. First, our part in it: The Observer didn’t exactly “expose” the payment of Pendergraph’s unused vacation leave. Our initial reports focused on Jones potentially retaliating against Pendergraph by calling up his personnel record, perhaps after a request from commissioner George Dunlap, then emailing his vacation pay information to commissioners. A subsequent report examined Pendergraph’s payment in context with Jones granting the same for a handful of other departing county employees.

Was the payment “secret” and “hidden,” as the ad says? That implies an active deception similar to what Jones did in negotiating a buyout for Crockett, then misleading the public about it when questioned. The O might have had a couple of questions about the payment had we learned of it, but there’s no evidence Pendergraph’s payment involved negotiation or attempts to conceal - or that Pendergraph even thought he had a reason to conceal it.

Visual note: During the ad's “secret” and “hidden” segment, a pullout quote from a Feb. 2011 Pundit House article appears on the screen: “Revelations swirling.” We found the report and sentence that contains those words, and the “revelations” referred to Crockett’s payment, not Pendergraph’s. That's a step past sloppy toward misleading.

Same goes for the implication that Pendergraph paid Jones back for his largess by later voting him a raise. The vote was part of a unanimous - and ill-advised, in our opinion - commission decision, but given that Pendergraph has never been shy about criticizing the county manager, the suggestion of some back-scratching between the two seems farfetched.

So, dirty politics or really dirty politics? We think it’s more of the latter, and we hope from this point on, Pittenger sticks with ads he’d be proud to put on his web site.

Peter St. Onge


Garth Vader said...

Why is the Observer obsessing over this instead of covering the issues that were discussed at the forum?

I read the article about this and one of the comments said that Mike Steinberg got the most applause, not the two children. It certainly looks like the Observer is doing its best to force a runoff between the two children and ignore the mature candidates like Steinberg.

Bill said...

Pittenger is a scumbag and has his own crooked past...buying land that he has inside knowledge will be future highways through and then negotiating high buyouts from the state when ready to be built? Pendergraph is the only candidate to replace Myrick!

Wiley Coyote said...

So.... if it's the truth then is it "clean politics" instead of dirty politics?

Ben Ritmato said...

Keep holding officials and candidates statements up for scrutiny, Observer. Thanks.