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West Valley City mayor admits using false identity to write news stories

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 10:08 p.m. MST

Mayor Mike Winder of West Valley City greets people during ceremonies for the new Mid-Jordan and West Valley TRAX lines, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — Mayor Mike Winder has admitted to creating a false identity to write news stories about the city he represents for Utah media outlets.

Using the name Richard Burwash, the West Valley mayor had more than a dozen stories published over a two-year period. His stories first appeared in the Oquirrh Times beginning in September of 2010. He later submitted three stories that were published in the Deseret News, and one that was posted on KSL.com. A photo taken by Winder also appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune, credited to R. Burwash, in October 2010.

Winder even pretended to be the fictional Burwash when he spoke with editors over the phone and in emails.

Four stories were published through Deseret Connect, a freelance contributor network through which stories are submitted to its media partners, including the Deseret News and KSL.

Winder says he stopped using the pen name when he learned it was against Deseret Connect policy, and he informed Deseret News editors of his actions this week.

"While we appreciate that Mayor Winder would, of his own accord, quit writing under the assumed name and then detail the error to us, we remain highly concerned that someone would purposely misrepresent himself," said Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media.

"The Deseret News believes in giving voice to the community, but that must be done in the context of transparency and honesty. We deeply regret that Mayor Winder would do this," Gilbert said.

Winder admits to using a made-up name and address — as well as a photo he found through a Google image search — to create his false persona. He also communicated with Deseret Connect editors via an email account created for Richard Burwash and spoke to an editor over the phone on at least one occasion representing himself as Burwash.

After learning about Deseret Connect's policy regarding pen names, Winder stopped writing under the alias and told editors that Burwash had moved to London and even provided the phone number of a library there as his new number.

Winder says he used the pen name to get more "good news" about West Valley City published in the Deseret News following layoffs at the newspaper in September 2010. With the cutbacks, the number of Deseret News reporters covering city governments was reduced.

"My motive was to try to restore balance in the Deseret News' coverage of my city," Winder said Thursday.

The mayor said he tracked the number of stories about West Valley City in the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune over a three-month period. He says 56 percent of those stories in the Deseret News during that time were about crime, while just 16 percent of coverage by the Tribune were crime-related.

"I care deeply about having news stories about my community beyond what the crime desk churns out, since there is a negative reputation we are working hard to turn around," Winder said.

The mayor said he saw Deseret Connect as an opportunity to help that cause. Winder had done something similar at the Oquirrh Times, a weekly newspaper he said had been mostly focused on Magna and was "desperate for content" from West Valley City.

Winder said Oquirrh Times editor Howard Stahle was aware that Richard Burwash was the mayor's pen name. But Stahle said he had no idea Burwash was Winder until the mayor called and told him Wednesday.

Deseret Connect editor Jacob Hancock said all of the articles submitted by Winder as Burwash were factually correct — aside from their byline. Stahle also said there were never any issues of accuracy with Burwash's stories.

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