Naked City

Reading Arnold's e-mail

Among those caught in the polluted backwash of the aborted Temple-Inland expansion plan was Statesman editorial page Editor Arnold Garcia, who found himself publicly embarrassed and apologizing to his colleagues for agreeing with Mayor Will Wynn to "keep the lid on" the company's expansion plans after the mayor had mentioned them to him last fall.

Open-records material made public by the Save Our Springs Alliance in December (see "Naked City," Jan. 2) included copies of an e-mail exchange between Wynn and Garcia after the two played golf together in mid-September. In the correspondence, Garcia notes that he'd like to write an editorial on recruiting businesses to Austin and wants to use some of the Temple-Inland info that Wynn had shared during the golf game – he even offers to send Wynn a draft of the editorial "for your edification." Wynn responds by asking Garcia to keep the Temple-Inland story "hush-hush" while he tries to negotiate the necessary votes from council members. Garcia agrees to "keep a lid" on the information. Two months later, the Austin Business Journal broke the story, and the Statesman played catch-up.

News of the e-mail exchange eventually forced the Statesman to cover the story, which ran on page one of the Metro/State section as part of its Jan. 23 coverage of the press conference in which environmental groups discussed the correspondence and criticized Garcia's private agreement with Wynn. (The Statesman also made copies of the e-mails available on its own Web site.) On Monday, Jan. 26, Statesman Editor Rich Oppel called a staff meeting at the paper. "Arnold apologized to the staff, and I spoke to the staff and apologized as well," Oppel said. "The reaction [from the staff] ran from concern and chagrin over the possibility of damaging the credibility of the newspaper, to sympathy for what Arnold was going through." Oppel said Garcia's promise to keep quiet about Temple-Inland's expansion plans "could be subject to misinterpretation, indicating we were in cahoots [with political officials] to keep a lid on information." Oppel added that as an editorial page editor "Arnold has no control or influence over the reporting staff. ... I think what he was protecting was a source." Most newspapers have strict policies against letting a source read a story before it sees print. Oppel said Garcia and the rest of the staff were reminded of this policy. "We do not share editorials or columns or stories with sources or subjects."

"That was an incredible lapse of judgment," Garcia agreed later. "It was not my intent to enter into any sort of collusion [with Wynn]. I was trying to confirm a conversation, and I wanted to pursue that, so I sent [Wynn] that stupid e-mail." Reminded that he himself had warned readers in a November column – after the Statesman published excerpts of e-mails between City Hall, enviro leaders, and Stratus Properties – not to write anything in an e-mail that they'd be embarrassed to read in the newspaper, Garcia said, "It's not the first time I've ever eaten my words."

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Edwards Aquifer, Arnold Garcia, Temple-Inland, Austin American-Statesman, SOS Alliance, Austin Business Journal, Rich Oppel

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