Reporter fired over conflicts of interest

2012-12-13T07:21:00Z 2012-12-14T09:12:19Z Reporter fired over conflicts of interestBy Jeff Pratt, The Sentinel The Sentinel
December 13, 2012 7:21 am  • 

A complaint filed with the Cumberland County District Attorney's office by a local businessman resulted in the firing of Sentinel Reporter Stacy Brown Tuesday because of a conflict of interest.

Hotel Carlisle Manager Farouk Hegazi emailed a complaint Monday afternoon to the district attorney’s office and copied it to the corporate offices of Sentinel parent company Lee Enterprises. In it, Hegazi claimed Brown had run a scam, using a concert that was supposed to feature Damon Harris and the Temptations Oct. 27 at the Hotel Carlisle and Embers Convention Center in Carlisle.

That concert as promoted to the public did not take place as planned, and Hegazi says Brown used his position as a reporter for The Sentinel to attempt to collect payment after Harris didn’t show up.

District Attorney David Freed said Wednesday his office had received the complaint.

“I received the email and we will act accordingly,” Freed said. “I am evaluating it.”

Sentinel Publisher Mark Heintzelman said the newspaper received the emailed complaint from Lee corporate offices at 4:30 p.m. Monday and within 90 minutes had suspended Brown with pay. After an internal investigation and a meeting with Hegazi on Tuesday morning, Heintzelman said, the newspaper decided to fire Brown.

No criminal charges have been filed regarding Hegazi’s complaint.

Using his position

While employed as a reporter at The Sentinel, Brown was affiliated with RTJP Events, a concert promoter. He helped arrange a concert at the Hotel Carlisle while also writing blog posts and stories to promote the event without revealing to his supervisors at the paper that he had a conflict of interest.

The company’s employee handbook requires employees to reveal any situations that could present a conflict of interest.

“Unfortunately, Stacy used his position with The Sentinel to advance the personal gain of his own business,” Heintzelman said. “In doing so, he created a significant conflict of interest.

“We have a code of conduct all employees sign and, simply put, he broke that code of conduct.”

Brown said Wednesday he consulted with his lawyer, Robert Daniels of Harrisburg, after hearing about Farouk’s complaints and that the paper was working on a story.

“It is categorically untrue what Farouk said. I could care less about Farouk, he has no leg to stand on. I want to protect my interests with regard to my journalism career,” Brown said.

Sentinel Editor George Spohr and Heintzelman both said the newspaper had no knowledge of Brown’s involvement in facilitating the Damon Harris concert prior to the emailed complaint from Hegazi on Monday and their meeting with him on Tuesday.

“The proof that came forward was so substantial that we didn’t have the luxury or desire to wait for legal action to be taken,” Spohr said. “There was no ambiguity in what we found.”

Brown worked as a reporter for The Times-Tribune of Scranton for seven years before joining The Sentinel last May.

Blurring the lines

Brown first said his affiliation with RTJP Events was as a freelancer, then as someone who coordinates events for the company involving Damon Harris, the former Temptations singer. A Google search produces a website for RTJP Events at rtjpevents.webs.com. That website includes a contact phone number that matches Brown’s home phone number. And whoisdomaintools.com lists Brown as the owner of the domain for rtjpevents.com, a site that is no longer active as of Thursday. A phone number matching Brown’s home phone number is included in that listing for the registrant.

Hegazi’s complaint to the district attorney states, “I believe that RTJP and Mr. Brown are either one and the same or are working very closely to defraud small business.”

Brown provided a phone number Tuesday night for Monte McDaniel, a name listed on emails provided by Hegazi as an RTJP representative, but the number turned out to be incorrect. Brown could not be reached Wednesday evening to provide a verification of the phone number.

“When it comes to dealing with things (in Pennsylvania), specifically Damon Harris, they have me to take care of it for them,” Brown said about his relationship with RTJP.

Hegazi provided The Sentinel with copies of several email exchanges between him and Brown involving the organization of that concert, as well as communications afterward. In those emails, Brown discusses pricing, scheduling and promotion of the show with Hegazi. The documents include email exchanges from RTJP Events to Hegazi that say Brown is the “point person for this great show,” and “We also authorize (for this event only) that Mr. Brown act as an official spokesperson for Mr. Harris and the group and Mr. Brown is further authorized to accept payments ...”

Brown said he didn’t negotiate anything between Hegazi and the band. He also said he did not disclose his full involvement with RTJP to editors at The Sentinel.

“That is true. It’s a whole lot bigger than me,” he said.

“The paper felt this was an ethics thing,” Brown said Wednesday. “I didn’t see it that way and it wasn’t that way in Scranton.”

“I hired Stacy. He did do a number of shows up here in Scranton, but there were never any problems connected with it,” said Assistant Managing Editor John Murphy of the Scranton newspaper. “He was always above board with what he was doing. Never seemed to be any conflict of interest as far as we were concerned nor any complaints. To my recollection there were two or three of the concerts and they were kind of an annual event.”

The concert

Hegazi said he met Brown when Brown contacted him for a story that ran Aug. 12 in The Sentinel. That story cited claims from a former Embers Steakhouse employee and the Department of Agriculture about unhealthy conditions at the restaurant, which is housed in Hotel Carlisle. The story was assigned to Brown by an editor, Spohr said.

Brown wrote a followup story for Sept. 29 that said the Embers Steakhouse had been given a clean bill of health. Hegazi said Brown approached him during his reporting for that story and asked about setting up a concert at the hotel. Emails Hegazi provided The Sentinel document those discussions.

Hegazi said he dealt mostly with Brown, aside from some emails from the promotions company, RTJP Events.

Hegazi’s complaint to the district attorney includes information about the concert itself on Oct. 27 when the scheduled performer, Damon Harris, did not show up. Hegazi said he did not know Harris would be absent until the night of the show. Brown said Hegazi was told at least two weeks prior to the show that Harris might be absent.

Harris, who said he has been receiving treatment for cancer in Maryland, said he did have a verbal agreement with Brown to perform in the concert at Hotel Carlisle until two weeks prior to the show. At that point, he realized he would be physically unable to make the performance because of a four-week radiation process he was going through.

Phillips, the replacement singer, said he had a contract in place with Brown by Oct. 17. Joe Phillips arrived the night of the show with a different band, and even as he was performing on stage, Hegazi put a stop on a check to Brown for partial payment of the show.

“Instead of 5 singers and Damon Harris, I had two unknown people for $9,250.00 a night,” Hegazi said in the complaint.

The payment dispute led to followup emails involving Hegazi and Brown, Hegazi and RTJP Events, and Brown and RTJP Events. In a Dec. 2 email, Brown told Hegazi about an article he was doing on the best and worst hotels in Carlisle, but Brown had pitched that story two days earlier to an editor at The Sentinel, who shot it down.

Hegazi said he finally sent an email to the district attorney’s office on Monday because Brown said RTJP and Phillips were going to report him for failing to pay for the concert.

‘Knock me down’

Hegazi said he didn’t feel comfortable contacting The Sentinel.

“There was no reason to contact the paper because (Brown) was the paper,” Hegazi said. “He had been putting whatever he wants in the paper. At that point, I thought he could build me up or knock me down, do whatever he wants.”

Brown did write eight blog posts on The Sentinel’s website, cumberlink.com, between Sept. 21 and Dec. 6 that reference the concert or Damon Harris in some form. At least two of those posts ran in the print edition.

“I was sickened that anyone would think our newspaper could be capable of doing those things (that Hegazi mentions),” Spohr said.

“I don’t think this is a he-said, he-said case. I’ve seen both sides of the story from both email accounts (Hegazi’s and Browns’s). It leaves no doubt in my mind that our reporter significantly crossed the line.”

Spohr and Heintzelman both said the investigation into Brown’s work at The Sentinel will continue.

“We will continue to go through all of Stacy’s work and be sure he upheld the highest level of integrity for our readers,” Heintzelman said. “If and when we discover anything, we will keep the public apprised through editor and publisher notes.”


Editor’s note: Jeff Pratt is The Sentinel’s managing editor. He wrote this story independently of the newspaper’s investigation, which continues. It was edited by a sister newspaper in New York.

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