Coming soon to a Houston courtroom near you: some of KPRC's dirty laundry. A former photographer is suing the station for a million bucks over his March 2000 firing.
The photographer, Leo Chavarria, says he was canned because he refused reporter Brendan Keefe's request to use fake media passes Keefe created in order to interview then-governor George Bush. Keefe and KPRC news director Nancy Shafran say Chavarria was a chronic slacker who didn't want to go to the Bush interview because he was sleeping off the effects of a long night on Austin's famous Sixth Street.
Whoever's right -- and even Chavarria's lawyer, Donald Wilhelm, admits these cases can be tough to win -- depositions taken so far in the case provide some odd glimpses into life at KPRC.
Keefe, a four-year veteran of the station, says in his depo that he used his home computer to make two press passes, scanning a "Bush For President" logo off a bumper sticker and adding some stars and the words "Traveling Media" to it. After a half-dozen tries and 30 minutes of fussing to get the colors just right, he was satisfied.
It was only done as a "fun activity," he said, and in no way did he ever mean to use them for his upcoming trip to Austin to cover the Super Tuesday primary results March 14 and 15.
"To me it was a memento of having covered the Bush campaign It was something to add to my collection, my scrapbook, if you will," he said in the deposition. (Earlier in his career, Shafran said, Keefe admitted he relied on his computer to make a NASA parking pass he never used.)
He got the two Bush passes laminated and hopped in the truck Chavarria was driving to Austin. The photographer grabbed one because he thought it was "cool," Keefe said, not -- definitely not -- because Keefe handed it to him, as Chavarria claims.
(Why'd Keefe make two souvenir passes? "It's common when getting these things laminated, they wrinkle," he said. "As it turned out, both came out satisfactory.")
Keefe admits he showed the pass to Bush volunteers who were signing in media types. "I didn't, like, display it," he said, "but it was like, 'This pass won't get us in, right?' Just verifying with them I guess I just wanted to, I don't know, verify what I already believed."
Keefe got a general pass from the volunteers, but Chavarria claims he was still plotting to use the fake pass to get closer to Bush than the general pass would allow.
Late that night a reporter from the NBC affiliate in Dallas told Keefe that a small group of local Texas TV reporters would be getting one-on-ones with the governor the next morning. Keefe said in a later memo to his supervisors that the reporter told him, "KPRC was not on the list, but if we wanted to try to talk our way into the mansion he would yield some of his time to us for questions."
Chavarria started complaining about the need to be at the mansion by 8 a.m. the next day, Keefe wrote. The photographer, Keefe wrote, also said, " 'They're never going to let us in the mansion.' I said, 'If we even have a one percent of getting a one-on-one with the governor the morning after he wins the nomination, we're going to take that chance.' " (The role of Keefe will be played by George Clooney in full ER "I need that stat, dammit!" mode.)
The next morning, Keefe took the keys from a "groggy" Chavarria and went to the mansion. "As luck would have it," he wrote in the memo to his bosses, "the Secret Service had just taken control of the governor's security, and in the confusion I was allowed through the gates." Thank God it was the notoriously inept Secret Service at the door and not the crackerjack Austin police, Keefe didn't add.
Keefe got his interview and Chavarria got in hot water for not being there and for allegedly "disappearing" during much of the two days in Austin. Questions were also raised about overtime he claimed on the trip. Within weeks he was fired.
And not a moment too soon, according to Keefe in his deposition. While some people in the newsroom were saying Keefe had gotten Chavarria fired, the reporter said, others were happy. "Sometimes, you know, people were saying [after learning Chavarria was canned] 'It's about time!' The rumors were along those lines," Keefe said in his deposition. " 'They should have fired him years ago.' 'He won't be missed.' That kind of thing."
Shafran, in her depo, agreed that reporters had long complained about having to work with Chavarria. One time the photographer kept U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison waiting 25 minutes, she said; another time he told a man-in-the-street interview subject that what they were doing wasn't newsworthy. (At which point reporter Jacque Reid called him "a flat-ass, whatever that means," Shafran said.)
"If I put a complaint in Leo's file every time someone grumbled about having to work with him, that would have been a full-time job for me," she said.
Under current Texas law, Chavarria would have to prove that the sole reason for his firing was that he refused to take part in a scheme to use illegal passes. Wilhelm, his lawyer, is hoping to get the court to adopt a new standard the state Supreme Court has recently established for cases of sexual, racial or age discrimination, where the fake-pass incident would only need to be a "motivating factor."
Another reason to love Houston, according to the Houston Chronicle's editorial page: We don't use tanks to run over protesters.
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"Exercising Liberty: Members of Falun Gong Can Protest Safely in Houston," the lead editorial thundered July 20. Noting that a group of Falun Gong members regularly protests outside the Chinese consulate in Montrose, the Chron's opinionmeisters nodded smugly that "When similar assemblies take place in China, the participants risk imprisonment, torture and death."
Yeah, but they don't have to put up with monthly newspaper stories on the glory that is Enron's Ken Lay.
The Chron editorial, by the way, also mentioned Chinese persecution of "Catholics loyal to Rome," a phrase we thought had gone out with the election of JFK.
We're sure if those Catholics came to Houston we'd let them protest, too. We welcome all kinds of fringe cults around here.