Claremore Daily Progress

October 6, 2013

Conflict questions raised in PR firm’s tie to DA

Police chief: $8K paid to principals who also own weekly paper

Salesha Wilken
Staff Reporter

CLAREMORE —

Conflict of interest questions have been raised as a result of Claremore Police Chief Stan Brown’s request to review District Attorney Janice Steidley’s financial ties to the owners of a public relations business who also publish a weekly newspaper critical of Brown.
Brown said he requested and received records of the financial relationship between DA Steidley and John M. Wylie II, owner of Wylie Communications Inc., of Oologah, in response to concerns raised in an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation inquiry.
Wylie and his wife, Faith, also publish the weekly Oologah Lake Leader, which has disparaged Brown and other active supporters of a citizens’ petition seeking a grand jury investigation of DA Steidley, three of her assistants and two county commissioners.
Brown said financial records show the district attorney paid  Wylie Communications about $8,000 over several months. Invoices submitted by DA Steidley to The Daily Progress show payment of $6,250.10 since September of 2012 for research, consultation and press release services. 
The business relationship with the district attorney was first disclosed in an editor’s footnote to the Oologah Lake Leader’s March 26 story on a libel suit filed by Steidley and her top assistants against The Daily Progress. 
After Brown filed his request for the PR firm’s tie to DA Steidley, Wylie, in a Sept. 19 news analysis in his weekly paper, described Brown and other supporters of the grand jury petition as “clowns and conspiracy mongers salivating at the idea of getting a new district attorney by underhanded means instead of an election (which, without chicanery, they’d lose.)”
The article acknowledged Wylie Communications “openly performed public communications projects for Steidley personally, her political campaign committees and the District Attorney’s office” and that the business relationship was not uncommon in Oklahoma when the district attorney’s office did not employ a staff person for such tasks. 
Wylie also told a reader who responded to the article that the PR business is separate from the weekly newspaper even though they share the same owners and business address, and that clients of the PR firm have no influence over what is published in the paper.
Wylie quoted his wife in the article as questioning whether Brown’s request for financial records of the relationship was an attempt to intimidate the Wylies “while hiding behind a badge, uniform and gun.” 
That caused Brown to raise questions of conflict of interest between the Wylies’ PR business relationship with DA Steidley and the couple’s newspaper criticism of the police chief and other supporters of the petition asking a grand jury to look into her conduct in office.
“It seems the bias is the result of Wylie’s public relations contract with (DA) Steidley,” said Brown. “Wylie has published material without asking me for information, which is very one-sided and appears to be improper for a journalist.”
Two former presidents of the Society of Professional Journalists, the country’s largest journalism organization, told The Daily Progress the relationship between the Wylies and the district attorney was a violation of the organization’s voluntary code of ethics regarding conflict of interest.
Kevin Smith, chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and deputy director of the Kiplinger Public Affairs Program at Dayton, Ohio, University, and Fred Brown, a Sunday columnist for the Denver Post and a former ethics chairman, said it is inappropriate for journalists to engage in a business relationship with public officials, even if indirectly through a separate company.
“You are either a journalist or something else,” said Smith. “You cannot have a public relations firm that deals with public officials and then run a newspaper and expect that you will some how divide yourself between the two.”
Fred Brown said anyone “who represents a client in a public relations context is expected to protect that client’s public image. News coverage is expected to be impartial. The two roles are incompatible.”
Fred Brown added: “One of responsible journalism’s most important roles is to monitor how the public’s money is spent. This watchdog role is seriously compromised when the supposed watchdog is being paid with tax dollars. An occasional disclosure of the relationship is not enough to counter the basic conflict of interest. It’s just not ethical.”
DA Steidley, however, defended the business relationship with Wylie Communications, and said she “has never paid any news organization or journalist to publish or broadcast articles, editorials or stories for the DA’s office.” 
DA Steidley said she’s used Wylie Communications “on an as needed basis since September of 2012” to constrain costs by not having to employ “a full-time PR/Media person, like many other agencies do. We arrange for those types of services only when necessary.”
Chief Brown said after he submitted the records request for the Wyle Communications tie to the district attorney, her office asked Sheriff Scott Walton to review the video surveillance record of his presence in the courthouse at the time, and to investigate whether his conduct was lawful.
Walton, is a sponsor of the grand jury petition targeting DA Steidley, said he had no intention of doing so.
“I am not going to investigate needless, frivolous allegations of someone walking into the courthouse that is not a threat,” said Walton. “Never has Stan Brown been perceived as a threat.” 
 
Invoices to DA from Wylie Communications