Alcoa foe paid worker on TV story

Staff WriterAugust 14, 2010 

A researcher who worked on UNC-TV news stories critical of the aluminum company Alcoa took money from a consultant fighting the company's control of dams on the Yadkin River.

Former House Speaker Richard Morgan, who works for the N.C. Water Rights Committee, gave $3,000 to Martin Sansone, a long-time friend of Eszter Vajda, the UNC-TV correspondent who reported stories about Alcoa that aired last month.

UNC-TV, the state's public television station, aired a story critical of Alcoa and its environmental record as the company works to renew its federal license to operate four hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin. Gov. Bev Perdue, Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco and some environmental groups oppose the relicensing and want the state to take over the dams.

The N.C. Water Rights Committee opposes the relicensing and supports a state takeover.

UNC-TV's handling of the Alcoa story has some questioning the station's credibility and independence. The station is a part of the University of North Carolina system.

Shannon Vickery, director of production at UNC-TV, said the station was not aware before it aired portions of Vajda's report that her researcher had taken money from an Alcoa opponent.

"It's information we did not have as we were in our decision-making process," she said. "It is not something that would normally happen."

Some of the money Morgan gave Sansone was for travel, and it helped Sansone return to the United States from Europe to help Vajda with the Alcoa story.

"Martin does a lot of research, so he was doing research for me," Vajda said in an interview Friday. The anti-Alcoa group asked for some of the materials she had. "Martin had given them information that we were uncovering," she said. "They needed it for their website."

Morgan said Vajda and Sansone, a citizen of Great Britain, solicited the money during a meeting with him and several others connected to the water rights committee.

"They both met with me and others and essentially pitched us for subsistence so he could stay here," Morgan said. "He couldn't afford to stay otherwise."

An April 7 e-mail message from Morgan to Vajda talks about paying Sansone. "We have an agreement on the travel and incidentals and Martin just need[s] to contact me and I will arrange payment," Morgan wrote.

Sansone said in an interview that his only interest was in helping Vajda obtain good information. "I don't care who runs the dams," he said.

In the news before

Vajda's Alcoa story made news before it appeared on television.

As lawmakers considered legislation concerning Alcoa and control of the dams, they asked UNC-TV to turn over to a legislative committee unaired footage that Vajda shot.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, the Concord Republican who asked for the information, supports a state takeover and was pushing legislation that would give the state a way to manage the dams and the revenue if federal regulators don't renew Alcoa's license. Vajda interviewed him for her story.

The station complied, and Vajda compiled some of the footage into a roughly edited piece of nearly an hour that was highly critical of the company.

UNC-TV aired some of Vajda's work as segments on its news and information show "North Carolina Now." Two of the three segments appeared with disclaimers that the work had not gone through the normal editing process.

Later, Tom Howe, the station's general manager, asked the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication for its opinion on whether the reports met "universally accepted standards of journalism."

A three-member panel from the school assailed the stories in a draft report, made public at the request of Alcoa. The report criticized the station for a breakdown in the editorial process and for allowing the reporter to control the final product.

Alcoa, unhappy with reports it said were unfair and inaccurate, put in a public information request to UNC-TV. The station on Friday delivered hundreds of e-mails, many of them with all the words blacked out. The News & Observer also requested the information.

Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said he had not seen the e-mail messages and could not comment on them. The company had requested the material to "shed some light on what's going on here," Lowery said.

Steve Volstad, UNC-TV spokesman, said the station redacted information on the creation, production or gathering of facts. He could not say precisely how the station decided what to reveal. T. Brooks Skinner, associate vice president for legal affairs at UNC and the station's in-house lawyer, did not return a phone call Friday.

Vajda said the e-mail UNC-TV released Friday did not show her extensive interactions with Alcoa supporters and one of its public relations consultants.

"I was working closely with the Alcoa people," she said. "There's several groups involved. I made sure I stayed close to all of them."

E-mail exchanges reveal a close relationship between Vajda, Sansone and representatives from the water rights committee. On April 8, Sansone asked Morgan if he was using a particular public relations company. "Let me know how you want me to fit in/and whom to help push out Blog coverage etc around the web so that I can give it some consideration before I get back to NC," Sansone wrote.

In his reply, Morgan detailed some of the campaign strategy. Vajda received a copy of the e-mail.

Morgan hired Carter Wrenn, a well-known political operative, to work with him on the water rights committee contract. Wrenn's name appears on a number of the e-mail exchanges.

On April 6, Vajda wrote him an e-mail message: "Incidentally, excellent maneuvering on this project! I look forward to sharing more info, ensuring we meet our objectives, as well as pick up some of your tricks :)"

Vajda said the message referred to Wrenn's work in getting Sansone back to the U.S.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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