Under the Dome

Alcoa documentary reporter leaves UNC-TV

August 19, 2010 

Eszter Vajda, the UNC-TV reporter at the center of a controversial documentary about Alcoa, is no longer employed by the television station.

Vajda's job ended at 5 p.m. Tuesday, said Gail Zimmermann, associate general manager of the station.

Zimmermann declined to discuss how or why Vajda's employment ended.

"It's a personnel matter, and so I can't say anything about that," she said.

Vajda, 39, has worked for the station since 2004. She was making $51,000 a year.

Vajda's involvement in a documentary about aluminum maker Alcoa has been the subject of news stories. Records show that a researcher and friend working with Vajda had taken money from interests that were hostile to Alcoa.

Alcoa is seeking to renew its federal license to operate hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin River. The state is fighting the relicensing and wants to take over the operation.

Records and e-mail messages from UNC-TV show that an array of forces hostile to the company, including Senate leader Marc Basnight, were pushing for the release of Vajda's story, one highly critical of Alcoa that aimed to present a case for a state takeover.

Rumors in the legislature led lawmakers to think the station was suppressing the documentary to protect Alcoa, an assertion UNC-TV denies. The station eventually aired segments of the documentary with a disclaimer stating the work was not subjected to the station's usual editorial reviews.

Alcoa spokesman Michael Belwood said that no representative of the company made any effort to stifle the story. Alcoa has been reviewing the records released by UNC-TV.

"What we have substantially found through our public records request is that UNC-TV coverage was essentially an arm of the opposition," Belwood said. "They were closely coordinating their activities."

Palin backs Ellmers

Sarah Palin has endorsed Republican Renee Ellmers in her challenge to Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge.

Ellmers' campaign staff breathlessly announced Palin's endorsement, which came Wednesday afternoon in a Facebook post.

"Renee decided to join the ranks of patriotic mothers across the country who have the courage to run for office this year and fight to make sure our children have as bright a future as we were given," Palin wrote. "Renee has an uphill battle against a truly out of touch incumbent who made news not too long ago when he was caught on video assaulting a student who asked him if he supported the Obama agenda."

The value of and reasoning behind a Palin endorsement has been red meat for talking heads. Etheridge, a Lillington Democrat, has a huge money advantage, but campaign stops or fundraising events by Palin would be a big boost for Ellmers, a Dunn resident making her first run for office.

"Like Governor Palin, I am a mother who is concerned about the direction of our nation," she said in a news release. "We both know that Washington is out of control, and I am running to help set the country on a better path of fiscal responsibility that ensures prosperity for future generations."

Etheridge's campaign had this response: "It is scary to think that Ellmers is going to take her marching orders about job creation from a person who abandoned the job she was elected to do for the people of Alaska."

Eudy fundraiser panned

The head of the State Employees Association of North Carolina is planning a news conference today to attack a fundraiser for Senate Democrats hosted by Capstrat co-owner Ken Eudy as an example of "pay to play."

Eudy, who knows a thing or two about communication, fired a blast himself.

"It's pathetic and defamatory," Eudy said of allegations by SEANC head Dana Cope that a fundraiser at Eudy's home is connected to a $375,000 contract his agency won in April with the N.C. State Ports Authority. "I don't blame SEANC leaders for trying to change the subject. They deserve 'As' for getting in the newspaper and on TV. They deserve 'Fs' for getting better pay, benefits and working conditions for state employees."

Dome previously told you about the fundraiser, scheduled for next week at the home of Eudy and his wife. Senate leader Marc Basnight, Majority Leader Martin Nesbitt, and Raleigh Sens. Josh Stein and Dan Blue are billed to attend, along with former Gov. Jim Hunt.

A database of state contracts shows that Capstrat has been awarded three, including a $13.5 million gig running a campaign to curb tobacco use among teens.

"What I would hope," Eudy said, "is there wouldn't be this McCarthyesque suggestion and innuendo that because I personally have made a contribution to some elected official who is 10 steps away from a decision on a state contract that something smells bad."

Cope's news release Wednesday mentioned that the fundraiser would not have been permitted under a provision cut from an ethics bill during the last legislative session.

The provision would have placed fundraising restrictions on contractors with state business.

Eudy said he would have no problem with such a provision's becoming law.

Nesbitt said he didn't see any problems with the fundraiser.

"We can't get out here and start telling people they can't participate in the political process," he said. "What the Supreme Court has said is that is free speech. You can't deny someone the right to participate in politics simply because they do business with the state."

By staff writer Benjamin Niolet

ben.niolet@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4521

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service