The case of the unreimbursed body wash!

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 19, 2013

The Washington Post attempts to report on McDonnell: In Monday morning’s Washington Post, Laura Vozzella authored a long, peculiar report about Virginia governor Robert McDonnell.

According to Nexis, the 1450-word piece appeared on page B4 of the Metro section. Yesterday, we found a hard copy edition of Monday’s Post, and the piece appeared on B1.

It may have appeared in different places in different editions of the paper. Wherever it may have appeared, Vozzella’s report was long and odd. It was terrible journalism.

Vozzella’s report formed the basis for Rachel Maddow’s opening segment Monday night, one of the most egregious reports we’ve ever seen on cable. For today, let’s run through the bulk of the puzzling work done by Vozzella herself.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Post obtained records of McDonnell’s personal spending during his 3-plus years as governor. The state of Virginia picks up the tab for large chunks of a governor’s living expenses. As she started her report, Vozzella described the problems with McDonnell’s spending the Post had allegedly found:
VOZZELLA (6/17/13): Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, have used taxpayer money for a range of small personal items they should have paid for themselves under state policy, according to spending records.

The McDonnells have billed the state for body wash, sunscreen, dog vitamins and a digestive system "detox cleanse," the records show. They also have used state employees to run personal errands for their adult children. In the middle of a workday, for example, a staffer retrieved Rachel McDonnell's newly hemmed pants at a tailoring shop nine miles from the governor's mansion. Another time, a state worker was dispatched to a dry cleaner 20 miles away to pick up a storage box for Cailin McDonnell's wedding dress.

About six months into the governor's term, the official who oversees mansion spending told the McDonnells that they should not have charged taxpayers for a number of expenses, including deodorant, shoe repairs and dry-cleaning their children's clothing. The official asked the McDonnells to pay the state back more than $300, which they did, and also gave them a refresher on what the state will and won't provide for occupants of the governor's mansion.

But since that time, state records show that the McDonnells have continued to let taxpayers pick up the tab for numerous personal items, including vitamins, nasal spray and sleep-inducing elixirs.
According to Vozzella, the McDonnells continue to let taxpayers pay for items they should be buying themselves, including their nasal spray.

According to Vozzella, McDonnell reimbursed the state for $317 in such purchases after six months in office. The misconduct continues, she says.

Or does it? At the start of her lengthy report, Vozzella says the McDonnells continue to let the state of Virginia pick up the tab for some of their personal expenses, including their elixirs. You have to read very deep in her piece before you find the state official in charge of such matters saying something quite different.

In the following passage, Vozzella is quoting Dennis Johnson, the state official who made McDonnell cough up that $317 three years ago. And uh-oh! Rather clearly, Johnson seems to say that McDonell’s spending has been OK since that time:
VOZZELLA: Like all new governors and their families, the McDonnells were told the expense rules at the outset of the administration but needed some time for them to sink in, Johnson said in an interview. Energy drinks aside, Johnson said that ever since he gave the McDonnells their refresher on what the state will and won't pay for, their spending has been in line with state policy.

"Typically when an administration comes in, we do discuss things," he said. "There are growing pains, and early on in the administration, there will be some things we have to review and discuss."
Why should any of this be confusing for an incoming governor? Perhaps because of the bewildering array of items which are and aren’t covered by the state of Virginia. In an earlier passage, Vozzella described the byzantine spending rules, just as Johnson described them to the McDonnells in 2010.

Mouthwash yes, body wash no! This is the kind of piddly-shit which has Vozzella tearing her hair:
VOZZELLA: The state will cover the cost of dry-cleaning for the governor and first lady, basic hygiene items, "including toilet paper, mouthwash, bar soap," cleaning and laundry supplies, and food for family meals, state functions and events, Johnson said in the memo.

But it does not cover the cost of clothing alterations, dry-cleaning for other family members, deodorant or body wash, pet food or treats, or food for non-family meals or non-state functions, Johnson wrote.

The McDonnells directly pushed back on one front, insisting that the state continue to pay for their energy drinks. The governor's chief of staff, Martin Kent, overruled Johnson to allow the drinks at state expense.

"While other governors and spouses may have had bacon and eggs, or cereal, or etc for breakfast, Governor McDonnell drinks Boost every morning, and the First Lady has a 5-Hour energy and/or a Boost," Martin wrote. "That is their breakfast. And that is why those items are covered, just like breakfast is covered for EVERY Governor and First Lady.”
Mouthwash yes, body wash no! Bar soap in, deodorant out! It’s easy to see how this nonsense could be confusing at first. But according to Johnson, McDonnell’s spending has been in line with state policy since 2010.

Why then did Vozzella state, early on, that “the McDonnells have continued to let taxpayers pick up the tab for numerous personal items,” even including elixirs? Vozzella seems to answer that question late in her piece, but an obvious question remains:
VOZZELLA: But sales receipts released by the state indicate that energy drinks are not the only extra the governor and first lady have continued to get at state expense. They went on to bill taxpayers for myriad medicine-cabinet products, vitamins and the body wash that Johnson said shouldn't be billed, records show.
They keep billing the state for their body wash, Vozzella claims to have found! So what did Johnson, the state official, have to say about that?

We can’t tell you! There is no sign that Vozzella asked him about The Ongoing Case of the Unreimbursed Body Wash. Vozzella also makes no attempt to resolve this point concerning an alleged "reimbursement process:"
VOZZELLA: Records also show that the McDonnells used state employees to run personal errands for their children—and directed the employees to use the mansion credit card to pay for their children's personal items.

In some cases, personal items for the McDonnell children are the only products listed on mansion credit card receipts. In those instances, the errands do not appear to have been performed in conjunction with any official state business.

In July 2011, for example, a state employee picked up Rachel McDonnell's hemmed pants at Lucy's Divine Creations, located 20 minutes west of the mansion. And that November, a worker was dispatched to Handcraft Cleaners, 30 minutes away, to get a box for Cailin McDonnell's wedding dress. The $24 charge for the hemming and the $49.50 cost of the box went on the mansion credit card. The McDonnells later repaid the state for those personal expenses, but not for the use of employee time.

Martin said that Maureen McDonnell would have run those errands herself, but because she is the first lady, she must always travel with a security detail.

"First Ladies have Executive Police Protection," Martin wrote. "They cannot just jump in their own car and run errands. Therefore the reimbursement process exists to allow First Families to reimburse for personal items that may have been picked up by staff."
That is the end of Vozzella’s report. This too raises an obvious question: Does some such “reimbursement process” exist? The notion makes sense, but is the claim accurate?

Vozzella makes no attempt to say. She doesn’t seem to have raised this issue with Johnson, the state official.

This is terrible journalism. Vozzella opens her report with direct accusations, then leaves extremely basic questions unexplored.

On Monday evening, Maddow took this mess and ran, creating one of the most egregious reports we’ve ever seen on cable. The most egregious part of what Maddow did hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

Vozzella’s report was extremely bad. Maddow made matters much worse.

Tomorrow: In a word, (grossly) dishonest

17 comments:

  1. Great post, Bob!

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  2. Agee with you 100% Bob! The Governor and the First Lady have done a remarkable job for the State of Virginia and that's what should be highlighted in their last days in office! Vozzella's reporting style on the Governor and his family is suspect.

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