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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Governor’s efforts to silence press misguided

News-Sentinel.com objects to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s cease-and-desist letter sent last week to the Indianapolis Star and Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting in response to previously published allegations that he was involved in an effort to absolve Amazon of responsibility in the death of a worker.

A story by the non-profit news organization Reveal, published in the Star on Nov. 25, stated that when an Amazon worker was crushed by a forklift in a Plainfield warehouse in 2017, the state’s investigator found the company was at fault, and the state cited Amazon for four major safety violations and fined it $28,000.

Reveal reported its investigation found that “as Gov. Eric Holcomb sought to lure Amazon’s HQ2 to Indiana, state labor officials quietly absolved Amazon of responsibility. After Amazon appealed, they deleted every fine that had been levied and accepted the company’s argument – that the Amazon worker was to blame.”

The letter from Holcomb’s general counsel, according to a Star story on Nov. 30, said Reveal’s accusations could not only harm Holcomb’s “good name and reputation,” but also pose a threat to the state’s “positive business climate.”

Reveal stands by its story. Founded in 1977, the investigative news organization – a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012, 2013 and 2018 – frequently distributes its stories to news outlets around the country.

The Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists criticized the governor for his cease and desist letter.

“Our organization, which represents professional journalists throughout Indiana, feels this move is a threat to press freedom,” The SPJ wrote to Holcomb. “In our view, your cease-and-desist letters, issued on Nov. 29, are designed to intimidate reporters and journalists looking into your administration.”

Reveal reported that an Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector, John Stallone, investigating the 2017 death of Phillip Lee Terry of Indianapolis, found Amazon was clearly at fault. IOSHA informed Amazon of its findings, but Stallone claims his supervisor, Indiana IOSHA Director Julie Alexander, counseled the company on how to get the fine reduced and shift blame to the worker.

The investigator also told Reveal that a few days later he was called into the office of Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble and that Holcomb was present. Holcomb allegedly told Stallone how much it would mean for Indianapolis to be named the site for Amazon’s second headquarters. Indianapolis was among 20 finalists for the site that eventually went to Arlington, Va.

Stallone says the commissioner told him in that meeting to either “back off” on the Amazon case or resign. Stallone says he did resign, but a letter to Reveal from Holcomb’s General Counsel Joseph Heerens says Stallone is not credible and was fired for poor job performance. IndyStar contacted the State Personnel Department Friday to find out whether Stallone resigned or was fired but received no response.

Holcomb has denied the allegations against him and the state, releasing a statement Friday that defended his cease-and-desist letter.

“I will not let the false accusations about Indiana state employees and me stand, as first published by California-based Reveal and followed soon thereafter by the Indianapolis Star,” he wrote.

The SPJ’s letter this week said the journalism organization “stands behind the efforts of local and national journalism outlets to report issues of public importance and hold leaders accountable. If there are disputes over accuracy, there are ways to address those concerns without issuing a cease-and-desist order.”

The SPJ is right. Holcomb is free to challenge the merits of the story and deny the allegations, but a cease and desist letter is a misguided attempt to bully the press. The irony is that in his efforts to squash coverage, Holcomb instead succeeded in intensifying scrutiny of the Amazon issue. That, of course, is as it should be.