SALT LAKE CITY — Utah House Majority Leader Kevin Garn is not the only one taking lumps for hot-tubbing in the nude with a 15-year-old and later paying her hush money. The Deseret News is, too — for knowing about the incident eight years ago and not reporting it.
"It was a bad decision not to report it," said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization.
"You essentially have someone who has presented one face to the public and it has been revealed that may not be true and accurate. And most likely you guys (the Deseret News) helped him present his narrative to the public. For that reason alone, you have an obligation to correct the record," she said in a telephone interview.
That was typical of many comments on web sites and from some readers. But top Deseret News editors say they believe they made the right choice back in 2002, and they still defend it.
Former Deseret News reporter Jerry Spangler said the episode began in 2002 when he wrote a profile of Garn and his congressional race just before the Republican primary election. He said Cheryl Maher called him to say "there is a side of him you don't know about," and told him about the nude hot-tubbing.
Maher said Friday that she also contacted the Salt Lake Tribune in 2002 and told it the same story.
"It was the week before the election," Spangler said. He remembers writing a draft of a story about the incident with Bob Bernick, the political editor, and inviting Garn to comment. He also remembers that Maher was hesitant to give many details and seemed "flaky."
He and Bernick said Garn came into the Deseret News offices and met with them and several editors. "I remember him crying," and confessing what happened, Spangler said.
But by then it was nearly the weekend before the election. Spangler said editor-in-chief at the time, John Hughes, and managing editor Rick Hall chose not to run the story.
Spangler said they questioned if something that had happened 17 years earlier was still news and said they did not want it to be the main issue on the minds of voters as they voted in the primary. When Garn lost — which meant he would be out of politics — Spangler said editors decided the story was moot.
Both Hughes and Hall said Friday that they do not remember the incident nor the discussion about how to handle it and why. "You think I would because it sounds juicy, but I don't," Hughes said. "Maybe we discussed it out, and I just moved on."
Hall, who is still managing editor, said he does not dispute Spangler's version of what happened. While he can't remember it, he also says he thinks the right call was made.
"It was last-minute — was it coming from the other camp? There wasn't time to verify it," he said. "Should that be the thing on people's minds as they go to the election booth? It's a balancing act that we play every day."
Spangler said he kept in contact with Maher for a few weeks after the election, and she finally told him that she didn't want to talk about the incident anymore — that she had received an apology from Garn and that is what she wanted. "She didn't tell me about the $150,000, though" — hush money that Garn paid her, he said.
Spangler left journalism before Garn re-entered politics and was re-elected to the Legislature.
Bernick said he remembers Garn telling him at some later point that he had paid some undisclosed amount of money to Maher and that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement, so Bernick said he figured she would no longer talk. He said he also did not know her name or phone number, because Spangler had dealt with her.
Bernick said Garn called him when he was considering involvement in the 2004 gubernatorial campaign of Marty Stephens and asked if the incident might come up. He asked the same later when he ran again for the Legislature in 2006. Bernick said he gave him no guarantees but also said he didn't know the woman's name or how to contact her.
Bernick said, "I think we made the right call, not to try to rush something into print when the woman was kind of a flake. I think it was the right call then and the right call now."
McBride, however, says bad calls were made. "The standard would have been to report it," she said. "You had it verified and you had the woman talking to you." She added, "It clearly was a bad call when he got back into politics."
Weber State University journalism professor Alison Barlow Hess, who is also president of the Society of Professional Journalists in Utah, also feels a bad call was likely made but was less harsh in her criticism.
"If these issues were easy, we would not be here discussing it. It's not always an absolute," she said. She adds that the Deseret News at least took a good step by apparently discussing it among several editors and reporters, including those with opposing opinions, before making the decision.
But she said the decision that was made will make readers wonder "how many other lawmakers have come in crying, and say 'I'm really sad,' and 'this happened a long time ago' and didn't have it reported."
She added, "People in Utah are pretty skeptical about the ethics of Utah legislators, and whether they are getting sweetheart deals" — including from the press because of decisions like this.