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Running on empty

SoVaNow.com / June 06, 2013
Every once in a while in this business you’ll find yourself lacing up your shoelaces to chase down a story that’s already traveled halfway around the world, and you realize the rumor mill only churns faster in this age of social media and the Internet.

And so it was earlier this week when — speaking of halfway ‘round the world — chatter started to spread about Superintendent of Schools Dr. Merle Herndon and her upcoming trip to New Zealand. Say what? It’s true: Halifax County’s school chief will be traveling this summer to the land next to the Land Down Under (actually, along with New Zealand she’s visiting Australia, too) in what sounds like a positively lovely foray with a College of William & Mary-sponsored study group.

Now normally, Herndon’s vacation plans would be of no great note (nor anyone’s business), but something happened this week to set off the community’s nosy-o-meter. What the match is that lit the fire remains unclear, although one suspects run-of-the-mill office conversation may have started a rumor boomlet. Whatever. Regardless, the questions started rolling in, in person and on-line: Is the School Board paying for the trip? (No. William & Mary is picking up the tab.) Is there a justification for this supposed junket? (Herndon was invited to join the trip in her capacity as a reading specialist. Along with the sightseeing, there are some professional activities mixed in.) Why hasn’t the public heard more about this matter? (Again, it’s not a matter of county business, only Herndon’s.)

So why am I even spending time on this non-story? Good question. Newspapers generally hew to the rule that it’s extremely bad practice to traffic in gossip, but the old rules are becoming harder to sustain in a climate where Facebook and alternative media have become go-to sources for information. So our role, now as always, is to take what people are hearing and see if it checks out. Most of the time, if we find there’s no there there, we move on to something else. Only occasionally would one engage in the current exercise of chewing on a nothingburger in order to make a point. I guess the slew of phone calls and office drop-bys from curious readers proved too strong to resist.

For the record, if the School Board had authorized taxpayer-funded travel by any of its employees to exotic locales, you would have no trouble finding out this information on the front page of this newspaper. Indeed, abuses of the travel budget are occasional fodder for news coverage: just last year, our sister newspaper, The Mecklenburg Sun, published a story on the conference-hopping by the former town manager of Clarksville (who found cause to attend 13 conferences in 30 months in such far-flung travel destinations as San Jose, Denver and Phoenix, although maybe the conference in Milwaukee shouldn’t count as a resort stay.) The manager blew through her travel budget and then some, making the matter an obvious candidate for investigative journalism. Herndon, on the other hand, is responsible for her own travel costs. (Frankly, and I don’t blame her for this, she also taken aback to learn that her summer vacation had drawn as much interest as it has.)

People are always complaining about the secretive deeds of prominent individuals (including government officials, although the list goes well beyond that group) but truth is, status exacts a penalty, and being in the public eye brings a level of scrutiny that can be wholly irresponsible at times. It’s even worse if you’re a public employee. I’m not sure if Herndon having to discuss her travel plans in public is any worse than a school janitor picking up the newspaper to see her salary reported in print, but I sure as heck wouldn’t enjoy the experience. (The News & Record does not publish government employee salaries en masse, although I don’t have a problem with newspapers that do.) Anyway, I’m not sure what lesson, if any, can be drawn from this episode, except that if something sounds too outrageous to be true, it probably isn’t.

That, plus probably the safest way to experience the wonders of New Zealand is to run down to Wal-Mart and purchase a DVD of “The Hobbit.”

***

Expanding our vistas for a moment, the scandal involving Star Scientific, Gov. Bob McDonnell and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli remains the gift that keeps on giving. (Star chief executive Jonnie Williams should be the first to appreciate the sentiment). On the heels of revelations that Williams furnished vacation junkets for McDonnell and Cuccinelli and paid for the catering at the wedding of McDonnell’s daughter at the Governor’s Mansion — a tab that ran a cool $15,000 — the drip, drip, drip of unflattering stories continues apace.

This week’s contribution, however, is not directly related to Star Scientific, which once was hailed around these parts as the revitalizer of the local economy (back when tobacco products were the company’s main line of business, instead of dietary supplements, Star’s current focus). Instead, the latest outrage is an article this week in The Washington Post on First Lady Maureen McDonnell and her failure to report income from work with a charitable foundation associated with a Virginia coal family empire — a job that paid $36,000 annually, despite little apparent effort being demanded of Ms. McDonnell (“For a few days of work, Maureen McDonnell picked up a salary nearly equivalent to the average starting pay of a Virginia teacher,” the Post noted.) On top of the Star Scientific revelations, what emerges is a picture of political bigfoots living the easy life at the same time they preach a message of belt-tightening and personal sacrifice for others.

Notwithstanding future revelations that may emerge about the state’s top two Republicans and their various sugar daddies, the hypocrisy currently on display is galling enough. The political fortunes of our outgoing governor probably won’t be affected too badly — his moment to make the leap to the national stage passed with Mitt Romney’s defeat last year, and the erstwhile McDonnell in ‘16 presidential boomlet was always kind of a joke — but Cuccinelli is a different story. He is, after all, on the ballot this November. The Republican brand is built on the party’s self-image as the champion of rugged individualism and entrepreneurial drive, which is understandable so far as the description often does fit individual members in the party ranks. But a governor turning to a big campaign contributor to pay for his daughter’s wedding? With a salary of $175,000, McDonnell really ought to be above such donor-class welfare.

As for Cuccinelli, the Roanoke Times has a piece out this week by columnist Dan Casey that utterly demolishes the image of the Attorney General as a straight shooter, his choice of targets aside. Casey’s blogpost can be found at http://www.roanoke.com, or easier yet, do a Google search for “Fraud cases show Cuccinelli’s priorities.” It’s a brutal takedown by Casey, who looks at two key episodes from Cuccinelli’s career: his ridiculous attempts to smear former U.Va. climatologist Michael Mann, and his reticence in going after an actual fraudster, the proprietor of a fake veterans charity who was a major Cuccinelli donor before being exposed. Alas, space considerations prevent us from summarizing the piece here. Perhaps in a future column.

Until such time ….





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