THANKS TO BERRY, THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE RECLAIMS ITS PROUD NAME, FOR A DAY ANYWAY, plus, MUCH MORE ABOUT ‘STEROIDGATE’
BY DAN VALENTI
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, March 26, 2011) — For a day anyway, and we hope for much longer, the local daily once again became The Berkshire Eagle. It was not the Boring Broadsheet, and it shed that label for today the way Clark Kent shed his two-piece gabardine for a set of blue tights and a red cape when Lois was tied to the tracks.
The Planet has been quick and often with the barbs against the Eagle, and as much as people do or do not believe this, we do so out of love — for the profession of journalism, for the industry of newspapering, for the Little Guy (who often has no other ally in his eternal fight against The Fix), and for the city of Pittsfield (one can judge a city by its daily). We are now quick with the praise.
Conor Berry, on the Loose
We refer to the way the paper has let intrepid crime reporter Conor Berry loose on SteroidGate. Berry rightly credits cyberspace — the initial tip by blogger Glenn Heller and the subsequent digging by The Planet — for getting the ball rolling. By virtue of the Eagle’s position, it, alone, can dedicate the necessary resources to ferret out the truth of a story such as this. For example, Berry got the PPD’s investigative report first. Credit him and the Eagle for that. The cops just don’t give those out like candy, especially in a clamped-down town such as Pittsfield.
Would the people of Pittsfield even know about the alleged steroid abuse by a member of the Pittsfield Police Department (a member of the drug Investigation squad and the county drug task force, no less) had these two cyberspace efforts not acted upon information? Heller released information on his blog. The Planet followed with the parts of the story we could confirm through traditional methods in investigative reporting: phone calls, e-mails, knocking on doors, and conversations. The coverage pushed overboard the Eagle’s initial managerial reluctance to pounce on this story — the first managerial instinct there, The Planet has been told by an Eagle source, was to spike the story — and Berry got to work.
Important New Developments
Actually, from what Berry has said in his captivating back-and-forth with Heller on the evolution of this story, he began working far sooner, more like the beginning of the month. The Planet first learned of trouble brewing through Heller. We launched our own investigation. Berry did the same, with greater resources. Today, his bylined piece determined important new developments, including information which The Planet had but had not officially confirmed and therefore withheld. Berry’s piece today shares information from a heavily redacted March 10 internal affairs report by Capt. David Granger of he PPD. According to the allegations in the report, we learned:
· PPD officer David Kirchner bought and used illegal steroids.
· Chief Michael Wynn, who still has not returned The Planet’s request for comments, confirmed information we first posted pertaining to Kirchner’s demotion from plainclothes drug work to pounding a beat in uniform.
· The police union and the union’s attorney bargained with the city for Kirchner “to accept responsibility in this matter and submit to a sustained finding on two accounts.” The Planet guesses — an intelligent guess, but a hunch nonetheless — that this “bargain” saved his job.
· Kircher took part in “criminal conduct.”
· Kirchner acted in a way “unbecoming an officer.”
· Kirchner acted in this manner both on and off duty (a significant revelation, the “on duty” part, that is). “On duty” means he acted criminally while wearing a badge and representing every citizen of Pittsfield.
Many Important Questions Linger
More important than the question of how the media got the story, and if the Eagle would have spiked the story had it not been for cyberjournalism, is if the city would have hidden Kircher’s alleged egregious dereliction of duty. That answer is “Yes.” The police, the mayor, the union, the lawyers, and anyone else involved would have buried this. That’s how it works in this town, except if the accused is an average citizen.
City officials would have buried this story. Kircher in all likelihood would have served his five-day suspension and that would be the end of it — except for the people who knew about it and the inevitable rumors that would follow in the wake.
Officials still have revealed crucial information:
· Was Kirchner’s suspension with or without pay? Chief Wynn: That is a straightforward and simple question. It can be answered yes or no without compromising any legal proceedings. Chief, taxpayers want to know. They want to know if a man accused of crimes receives a paid vacation as part of his punishment.
· Why is there an apparent double standard in how police are treated as opposed to ordinary citizens? This question has been asked, and this point has been brought up, brought up by numerous readers of this website and in conversation in Pittsfield (NOTE: The Planet was in Pittsfield everyday last week wearing out the rubber souls of his New Balance cross trainer’s in pursuit of this story). If the average, ordinary guy without connections gets caught, he loses his job. Officials quickly rush into print his name, address, and if he has a birthmark on his ass. Media types such as Conor Berry and Dan Valenti don’t have to act like Quixote after windmills to get the information. The DA’s office or some other agency gets the press releases out faster than you can say “This town’s quiet. Too quiet.” The police probe determined criminality on Kirchner’s part. What happens? He gets suspended (with pay, for all we know), and five days later he goes back to work.
· Why haven’t officials named the law enforcement agency involved in the overarching investigation into steroid use by city and county police officers? While we haven’t confirmed this, we have enough indications to feel comfortable sharing this much (AGAIN, UNCONFIRMED): that the two federal agencies are the Postal Service’s investigative arm, which got involved first, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which was brought in by the USPS once Postal got a feel for the size and scope of what was happening.
· How extensive is the federal probe? They aren’t saying. They would rather cast doubt and suspicion on the entire PPD, including the many good, decent, and law-abiding officers. Granger’s report, quoted by Berry, says Kirchner “held a position of great trust in the local law enforcement community, the courts and the community at large. Based on this investigation, [Kirchner’s] conduct off duty and on duty (Planet’s emphasis) have brought reproach and discredit to both himself as a police officer and to his fellow officers. A narcotic investigator buying and selling illegal substances has committed an act that has brought great reproach and discredit upon the [Pittsfield Police] Department.”
· Are criminal charges pending?
· How many other “narcs” knew about Kirchner’s activities and said nothing?
* Is the PPD still looking at other matters that, however remote, may relate to the Kirchner case?
· Why hasn’t Chief Wynn called a press conference to address this situation? For that matter, why has the city attorney, the mayor, and District Attorney David Caepless said nothing?
· Why haven’t any city councilors issued a statement? Why hasn’t Uncle Gerry Lee, a former cop and police chief, issued a statement on behalf of the council, condemning the actions of what his own former department calls a rogue cop?Why haven’t any other councilors spoken out? They represent every person in the city of Pittsfield, their “constituents,” of whom the politicians love to love when it serves their self-interests. Where is the statement condemning Kirchner’s alleged behavior? Both city attorney Richard Dohoney and Chief Wynn cite legal reasons why they can’t talk. The Planet understands that in an investigation, they can’t reveal everything. The Planet does not buy, however, their total disregard of the public’s right to know more, even if it’s only a verbal assurance by the chief that his department is determined to find out the truth and share that truth. Remember, it was only a crusading press, in cyberspace and traditional newsprint, that forced them to say as much as they have.
The BERRY-HELLER CHRONICLES
In the utterly fascinating and informative back and forth debate between Berry and Heller on The Planet’s “comments” section (what one commentator cleverly called the “Berry-Heller Dialogues,” Berry shared other aspects of the story:
My sources tell me that this investigation came to a head in Pittsfield in early March.
By the 4th, or thereabouts, the city police department was aware of an investigation by an outside agency. By the 7th and 8th, the city’s internal affairs interviewer met with outside investigators. That same city investigator authored a report on the 10th, which concluded that Kirchner had, indeed, purchased steroids, based on information supplied to the PPD by an unnamed investigatory body.
Kirchner’s suspension presumably began on the 10th, or thereabouts, so he was effectively out of the picture. The police action, or sting, or raid at a city gym you’ve identified as Ground Zero for this probe never happened, according to my sources, which include law enforcement officials and the owners of the gym you’ve identified.
In response to The Planet’s comment that the development of this story exemplies the impact cyberjournalism is having on the media and “traditional” reportage, Berry writes:
You’re right: If EVER there were a story that perfectly illustrates the impact of New Media, it’s this one.
Here’s why: “Electronic evidence, including recorded text messages, detail the types of drugs Kirchner wanted to buy, according to the internal affairs report. Written and audio statements given by an unidentified individual to investigators indicate that ‘Kirchner purchased the illegal drugs for personal use,’ the internal report states. “‘In the text messages, both Kirchner and [name deleted] talk openly of using steroids, buying steroids selling steroids and so on.’”
I’m embarrassed to admit, Dan, but I’m actually quoting from my own story, which quotes heavily from an internal affairs report The Eagle obtained from the PPD/City Hall on Friday. The heavily redacted document includes many potentially damning details, including these findings by the PPD: Kirchner engaged in “criminal conduct” and “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”
Frankly, I don’t see how a criminal complaint cannot be issued considering — and I quote from The Eagle article, which is slated for print publication Saturday (and online publication by roughly midnight, or thereabouts, tonight, which is technically tomorrow) — “Kirchner, ‘through his union and union attorney, had reached an agreement with the city to accept responsibility in this matter and submit to a sustained finding on two vioaltions’ of the Police Department’s rules and regulations.”
The PPD internal affairs report is plenty thorough, but much of it is heavily redacted, with thick, black ink blocking out such crucial identifiers as the investigating authority, or authorities, and the individual who allegedly sold Kirchner the “roids.”
An interesting story, nonetheless, with a tip-of-the-iceberg vibe to it. We’ll have to see what Monday brings. Will a criminal complaint be filed in Central Berkshire District Court? Will a complaint be filed in a neighboring jurisdiction, perhaps in Springfield or Northampton or Westfield or … who knows, really?
The “irony” that a drug investigator might get caught up in such a matter is somewhat of a cliché in a post-Dirty Thirty world. And who hasn’t seen “Serpico” or “Prince of the City” or even the “French Connection.” Even good guys get tempted sometimes.
The real surprise is that a cop who utilizes the latest technologies to catch bad guys could potentially be brought down by text messaging. Yet another reason why I don’t text. Don’t even know how, don’t even want to know how. I prefer the novelty of writing a letter, licking the stamp, and posting the message at my local P.O.
Also, thanks for accurately piecing out the chain of events that led to this revelation. Obviously, you and Mr. Heller are on the job, which is reassuring for anyone who values the truth. It’s a shame, however, that Mr. Heller can’t take a page from your book and avoid the incessant, nasty jabs at others who seek answers to today’s questions.
What’s that Old Memory that Recently Came Back?
One final note. This story invokes an eerie similarity to one, if memory serves correctly, that the Eagle had — we mean absolutely had nailed, signed, sealed, delivered, and confirmed — about five years ago. It involved the dealing of steroids by a member of the local law enforcement community. The story was hugely embarrassing to the county drug task force, as this one is. Because of the local “hot potato” nature of the Eagle story, “phone calls were made.”
Next thing you know, Ol Jed’s a millionaire. The case gets removed from Berkshire County and surfaces quietly in Hamden County court. After the court actions and slaps on the wrist, the person ends up being rehired a couple-three years ago as a public employee for a highly visible and influential Pittsfield Department.
The executive editor of the Eagle was the same Tim Farkas that serves in that post today. Our source says Farkas spiked the story. We’re going on memory here, with the attendant leeway, but is this true? We suggest that Conor Berry as his boss, Mr. Farkas, about this. It would be instructive to see if the newspaper, under Farkas’ direction and (perhaps?) at the order of the GOB Network, killed the story. It would also be highly relevant, if the accused in that case is still working in one of the Big 3 for the city of Pittsfield. Remember, five years, there wasn’t cyberjournalism to forced this story into the public.
Brave New World
It’s probably only a matter of time before a journalism school gets wind of this instructive civic exercise, taking place in real time and traditionally, right before our eyes. Media, politicians, police officers, anyone in the public eye, and the disappearance of personal privacy because of the omnipresence of small computers and cameras have created the Brave New World that Aldous Huxley and George Orwell wrote about so well and so long ago.
Their future has arrived, and we are all making our perilous but thrilling way along the paths (if they are there at all) of this strange reality we have created.
WE BID YOU ADIEU. WE ARE AWAY, AND REMEMBER, TOMORROW IS SUNDAY, OUR DAY OF REST. HAVE FUN. BE WELL. GO IN PEACE. LOVE TO ALL.