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The editor and the candidate
Reporter says he was punished for asking about their relationship
By David Crowder - El Paso Inc
EL PASO-The relationship between a top editor at the El Paso Times and a high-profile lawyer who ran for public office in March has raised ethics issues that troubled Times employees, caused a veteran reporter to be reassigned and may have contributed to his firing.
Months before this year’s political season began, news and political circles were buzzing about an apparent relationship between the Times metro editor, Milan Simonich, and lawyer Theresa Caballero.
Various Times staffers and others saw them together at Café Central Downtown and Pot Au Feu, drinking at the Artisan Hotel bar and on a morning shopping expedition at an East Side Albertsons.
Former Times reporter Darren Meritz, whose sudden firing last month after eight years at the daily newspaper surprised his colleagues almost as much as it did him, said he began hearing rumors about Simonich and Caballero in the newsroom and at the courthouse last fall.
Meritz said he realized that Caballero, who had never been a friend of the Times, was being mentioned in story after story.
On Jan. 4, Caballero announced her candidacy for El Paso County attorney. A search of the Times online archives found her name in 31 news stories from Sept. 1 until her announcement. Meritz wrote five of these stories. The rest were by other reporters.
“I began getting stories assigned to me that had a clear link to Theresa Caballero’s ideology and agenda,” Meritz said. “Milan was asking me to write a lot about Dr. Paul Shrode, the medical examiner, before she was a candidate.”
Getting Shrode fired for falsifying his resume was a key campaign issue for Caballero.
Caballero’s opponent, newly appointed county attorney Jo Ann Bernal, said her campaign workers urged her to complain to Times management about the reporting.
“I was concerned about the coverage,” she told El Paso Inc. “I got calls from many people on a daily basis asking what’s up with this coverage of your opponent. But I never raised the issue of bias on the part of the Times because I didn’t want to get into it.”
Meritz said he saw Simonich assigning other reporters to write stories that involved Caballero, a controversial lawyer known for her striking appearance and razor tongue.
“They all may have been good stories, but they all seemed to be stemming from an agenda that I’ve known Theresa Caballero has been pushing,” said Meritz, who for some years had been the only Times reporter she would talk to.
On Jan. 4, Meritz said, he was covering an uneventful County Commissioners meeting and called Simonich at the Times’ news desk to check in.
“He said I’ve got a good story for you, come back to the newsroom,” Meritz said. “He tells me, ‘Theresa Caballero is running for county attorney. … She’s coming by and I want you to do a story on that.’ ”
When she came into the Times second-floor newsroom, Meritz said, Simonich was excited.
“He kind of fluttered about like a school boy trying to figure out how to get a photo,” Meritz said. “Do we get a shot of her in the studio? Do we get a shot of her in the county courthouse?”
He settled on the courthouse shot. Meritz walked down Campbell Street with Caballero and a photographer to take a portrait of her with the glass courthouse in the background – the kind of picture and attention that political candidates don’t usually get from the Times.
Meritz said his courthouse sources had been bugging him about Caballero and her friend at the Times, and he wanted to know what was going on as well.
“I interviewed her, and at the end of the interview, I stop and think I’ve got to ask her about this,” he said. “I felt I would be doing something wrong if I didn’t ask this question that so many people have.”
So, he asked, “What is your relationship with Milan?”
“She said, ‘We’re friends,’ ” Meritz said. But she didn’t like the question.
He was at his desk a little while later when Caballero called to ask him why he had asked her about Simonich.
It was the first of many times that he would hear that question.
“About half an hour after that, Milan approaches me in the newsroom and he asks me, ‘Are you accusing me of doing something improper?’ ” Meritz said.
Meritz said he asked to have the conversation in a private conference room, where Simonich chewed him out for not asking him instead of Caballero.
Meritz said he told Simonich that he had been hearing about them and felt he needed to know so he asked Caballero, who was the candidate.
Then, he said, he asked Simonich directly about his relationship with Caballero.
“He gave me what we call in journalism a non-denial denial, which was something like, ‘If you think I’m telling you about my personal life, you’re crazy.’ ”
But, Meritz said, Simonich did tell him then and there that he was off the story and off political coverage altogether. In the following days, Meritz said he realized he was being pulled off the county government beat.
“The fact that I was not covering it was a clear result of my question,” he said.
For several weeks, he said, Simonich repeatedly called him into an office or conference room to ask him why he asked that question and berate him for it.
Meritz was abruptly fired by Times editor Chris Lopez on March 11 after making an error that had to be corrected in a story about a hearing in the fraud and conspiracy case of Aroma restaurant owner Oswaldo Kuchle.
While that was apparently Meritz’s second serious mistake in a month, traditionally the Times has written up employees for excessive mistakes and used months-long improvement plans before resorting to the threat of dismissal.
Longtime staffers and former employees cannot remember a reporter being fired for errors or over a performance issue.
Meritz admits the errors were his but said he never received a written or verbal warning and thinks his run-ins with Simonich were behind his dismissal.
Barthy Byrd, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at El Paso and a former TV reporter, agreed. She said, “If any of this is true, it’s outrageous…. You ask any question you have. No politician gets to say ‘this is my personal life.’ Political figures almost don’t have a personal life, and if they don’t like it, they shouldn’t step into that arena.”
Simonich declined to comment on this story or to hear the issues that it would raise.
“I don’t have anything to say to you,” he said last week.
El Paso Inc. called Lopez three times last week and left messages when he didn’t answer. He did not call back.
Some employees believe Simonich has dramatically improved the newspaper since his arrival a year and a half ago.
A longtime friend and colleague of Lopez, Simonich worked as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette before coming to El Paso.
“He was probably the best thing that happened to the Times in a long time until Theresa put her hands on him,” an employee said. “When he first got here, he was a great journalist and a good editor.
“He questioned every story, sentence and word. He made every story better. He made the newspaper better.”
Two weeks ago, the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors organization gave the Times 14 awards for 2009 and named the Times the newspaper of the year in its circulation category.
David Crowder is a longtime former employee of the El Paso Times.
The editor and the candidate<br>Reporter says he was punished for asking about their relationship (http://www.elpasoinc.com/readArticle.aspx?issueid=281&xrec=5143 - broken link)
I do and I dont. El Paso makes it easy for all to leave but extremely difficult to go back.
Stuff like this just turns my stomach.
This sort of story just scratches the surface compared to the rest of the "shananagans" going on. There was a guy on another forum that would post frequently about the corruption in local govt. He was a supposed "insider". He was found out and asked to refrain from posting on the subject.
It is about credibility. The El Paso Times' credibilty is being questioned.
Credibility is everything in journalism.
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