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COLUMN

Too-slow search for truth invites Moss-Fries speculation

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The Fort Report

This week's show will feature News-Sentinel sports writer Blake Sebring, who will discuss his latest book, the upcoming Komets season and other issues. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

Crucial details due in October were available months ago

Thursday, September 27, 2012 - 12:01 am

On Friday, the Allen County Ethics Commission will conduct the third of at least four meetings sparked by a controversial traffic stop involving two elected officials back on June 2.

The process will be at least three meetings and four months too long – a completely avoidable delay that has obscured the truth, invited speculation and, depending on the outcome, subjected two men to prolonged and possibly unfair suspicion.

Had County Councilman Paul Moss been drinking when he was pulled over? Did he phone Sheriff Ken Fries to seek special treatment that was ultimately granted, allowing Moss to avoid a blood-alcohol test? From the beginning, each has adamantly denied behaving inappropriately and expressed a desire for a quick and positive resolution, which makes the protracted process all the more puzzling – especially since Fries, more than anyone else, could have ended it months ago.

Last week, the Commission asked for and will presumably receive the very information I requested unsuccessfully immediately following the June event: access to the officers at the scene. The rationale for wanting to talk to the officers (two from the county and one from the city) should be obvious: The video and audio recordings released to date have been ambiguous, but unlike Fries and Moss the street cops have no personal stake in the outcome, lending credibility to their testimony.

Had those officers been made available at that time, it's possible this story would have died long ago --assuming, of course, their stories matched those told by Moss and Fries. Fries, in fact, hinted prior to last week's meeting that he intended to present statements from his officers that would exonerate him – statements that, given the board's action, apparently weren't delivered or were deemed insufficient.

The three Commission members could have expedited the process too, of course, by demanding more information more quickly and by meeting more often. But Moss and Fries elongated the process as well by questioning the Commission's authority to review the case.

Friday's meeting, in fact, is reportedly in response to Fries' contention that, as sheriff, he is not subject to its procedures. All of which means another round of media coverage – something Fries clearly resents but in fact created.

Whether it has jurisdiction or not, the Commission provides a useful fact-finding forum, if that's what participants want. But this story will drag on for at least another month, with the Commission scheduled to review the officers' statements Oct. 29. And who can say if it will end, even then?

In news as in politics, nature abhors a vacuum. Lack of a speedy conclusion to what should have been a relatively simple investigation has spawned the inevitable theories: Have Moss and Fries kept their responses to the Commission confidential to avoid the release of incriminating information? Has the committee prolonged the process to damage the future political careers of either Moss or Fries, who has expressed an interest in challenging current Republican State Sen. Tom Wyss?

And former County Confinement Officer Mike Mills has filed a complaint with the state, claiming he has been denied official recordings, videos and documents that might fill in some of he gaps.

For now, I can accept that Moss and Fries are (clumsily) trying to clear their names while avoiding excessive negative publicity, and that Commission members are simply being methodically thorough in their pursuit of the truth. But the fact remains that Fries could have ended all the speculation almost before it began by doing three months ago what the Commission has asked him to do next month: to let his officers speak for themselves.

And if they don't, or if the information is not made public, it will invite still more speculation.

In the larger sense, what Moss and Fries did or did not do that night is relatively insignificant (a more recent and similar case involving a member of the city's Board of Safety – which oversees the Police Department – has received almost no publicity at all). But the degree to which the public trusts and supports its key institutions is important, and the handling of this case should have done more to justify such confidence.

It's not too late.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.