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COLUMN

Use of 'anonymous sources' should be limited, but it could be growing instead

Augustine case, County Ethics Commission change show benefits, potential dangers

Saturday, July 19, 2014 - 12:01 am

When the commander of Fort Wayne's Air National Guard base was cleared of 11 charges of misconduct levied by an anonymous whistle blower in April, it illustrated a dilemma reporters face all the time:

How much credibility should be given to people who are not willing to put their names and reputations behind the information they provide?

It is a question that may become even more common for journalists and bureaucrats alike thanks to a decision made by the Allen County Ethics Commission just days before the exoneration of Col. David Augustine of the 122nd Fighter Wing.

The commission investigates conflict-of-interest charges against county employees, and before July 11 had accepted complaints on signed forms. From now on, however, written complaints will be accepted even from those wishing to remain anonymous – a decision that was not unanimous and illustrates both the potential dangers and benefits of the change.

Board President Abraham Schwab, who teaches ethics at IPFW, said the change could give courage to people who are reluctant to lodge a complaint for fear of retribution. On the other hand, people with malicious intent may be emboldened if they believe they can use the system to discredit bosses, co-workers or others they don't like.

And that possibility is very real, said Tom Hardin, an attorney and board member, because the complaint forms are public record, meaning I and other journalists will have access to the complaint forms regardless of their authorship or legitimacy.

“If people can accuse a county employee without identifying themselves, it could allow a person to not think things through and be certain (before lodging a complaint),” he said.

No doubt there are those who believe Augustine was the victim of just such a smear campaign: charges made from the shadows, widely reported in the media, and finally discounted – but only after calling his integrity and judgment into question.

The Augustine case, however, may represent the best argument for allowing – and discounting – anonymous sources.

Lost in the official exoneration was the fact that most of the allegations against Augustine – most involving the alleged misuse of government funds and property – were fairly accurate. The Guard merely concluded the decisions were permissible under existing regulations.

Personally, I found some of the expenditures to be extravagant, and believe a government $17 trillion in debt shouldn't be spending $85,000 on speech classes. If exposing some of the activities produces a little thrift, some good will have come from this.

But that only raises another and perhaps more troubling issue: The specificity and relative accuracy of the charges indicates they were levied by someone with direct knowledge of Guard activities. As such, that person may also have known that what Augustine did was permissible.

So was the anonymous accuser merely misinformed? Or malicious?

“It's irrelevant who the accuser is. We take them all seriously,” said Lt. Col. Cathy Van Bree, public affairs officer for the Indiana National Guard, who said she does not know whether Augustine's accuser is a Guard member.

In this case, it didn't matter. The allegations were specific enough so that a thorough investigation could be conducted. But what happens if an anonymous complaint alleges misconduct that cannot be proved or disproved by the official record or other traditional methods of investigation? How can someone who refuses to be identified be asked for information to prove his or her allegations?

In that case, Schwab and Hardin agreed, the complaint may not get very far. Anonymous charges, Schwab said, will have to be “robust” from the outset.

I use anonymous sources sparingly, and only when I know I can trust them and am satisfied that they have a good reason for secrecy. I believe the media was right to report the very specific allegations against Augustine, but what are journalists to do should the County Ethics Commission receive a sensational complaint that can't so easily be investigated?

There are laws to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation. There are laws protecting people from slander and libel. In between there is a huge gray area in which charges that may or may not be true can be leveled by people whose identities may or may not be known, and not just where the ethics commission is concerned.

It would be nice to believe everybody's best judgment and intentions will prevail. But we all know better.

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.