Letting a Maine Story Slide
I’d like to be more enthusiastic about the way Lewiston Sun Journal reporter Lindsay Tice is covering the controversy at the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board. But I’m having a difficult time because it appears Tice is relying on one of the parties involved in the dispute for most of her information, rather than aggressively following up and digging up the facts herself.
Here’s the background. In February, Tice produced an in-depth piece on how some Maine hospitals are paying big bucks to board members. Among the institutions making those payments was Central Maine Healthcare, parent of Central Maine Medical Center. In 2009, it gave its board chairman, Paul Dionne, about $60,000 in compensation.
That fact caught the attention of lawyers at Bath Iron Works. In March, Tice ran another article in which BIW attorneys argued that Dionne had a conflict of interest because he was being paid by the hospital at the same time the workers’ comp board – of which he’s also the chair – was locked in a long-running controversy over setting rates hospitals could charge employers for certain procedures. The shipyard wanted Dionne to recuse himself from the discussion.
During the following months, there was sporadic coverage of the issue, as BIW asked a judge to appoint an outside expert to set the hospital charges. But in May, when Dionne told a meeting of the comp board that he’d decided to remove himself from the debate, there was no coverage at all. This sudden shift by the board chairman didn’t attract any media attention until late June, and then only because BIW lawyer Jon Fitzgerald apparently spoon-fed the information to Tice. Even then, it took her several days to get something in print, spurred on, perhaps, by a frustrated Fitzgerald’s decision last week to send the material to other reporters, including me.
Let’s give Tice her due. She uncovered the hospital payments to Dionne in the first place. Without that, the conflict issue never would have arisen. She was also virtually the only reporter in the state to follow up on the matter, although that may have been a result of prodding by Fitzgerald.
But her efforts were still half-hearted. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and speculate that this could be because there’s almost no time these days at the Sun Journal or in any newsroom in the state for the kind of investigative work this story demands. But even so, there’s little sign Tice has shown much initiative. She didn’t attend the May workers’ comp board meeting, where Dionne pulled out of the discussion of hospital payments. She doesn’t seem to have made any phone calls afterward to find out what happened. She hasn’t produced an interview with Dionne explaining why he didn’t think he had a conflict or why he changed his mind. She hasn’t examined his role on the comp board to see if his hospital position created any other possible conflicts.
Instead, she let Fitzgerald – who’s not without biases of his own – do the grunt work for her.
While I’m handing out criticism, here’s some for every other news organization in the state. Where have all of you been since this story broke in March? No media outlet seems to have done more than run Associated Press rewrites of Tice’s pieces. Even when Fitzgerald sent out all the basic material for this story to a number of reporters, nobody responded.
Anybody awake out there? If so, there’s a lot more reporting to be done on this issue. Get cracking.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com