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

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 10:00 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) 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)

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.

Matt Sanders, director of Deseret Connect, said it took "an enormous amount of effort" to circumvent the checks and balances in place to make sure writers are who they say they are and that their work is accurate and their own.

Editors verify contributors' identies through several means, including phone numbers, email addresses, Facebook or other social media accounts, and writing history. Contributors must also sign a legal agreement verifying that they understand Deseret Connect policies and agree to abide by them.

 Winder also listed a Facebook account in Burwash's name as part of his Deseret Connect contributor profile. Hancock said he had several email exchanges with Winder, believing he was Burwash, and even spoke to the mayor on the phone in May to check facts on a story about UTOPIA.

"I wanted to make sure he wasn't associated with UTPOIA in some way," Hancock said.

Winder told Hancock he was Richard Burwash, a freelance writer who has spent his career writing for local newspapers, most recently the Oquirrh Times. Winder also provided supporting documents to Deseret Connect to be checked against Burwash's UTOPIA story.

Sanders said he's disappointed that Winder failed to adhere to Deseret Connect policies, calling the mayor's actions "an attempt to deceive."

Deseret Connect has more than 2,000 contributors, he said, who have produced roughly 5,500 articles and 3,000 photos in the past year.

"This is the first issue of this kind that we've had," Sanders said.

Winder didn't answer directly when asked whether he was intentionally trying to deceive Deseret Connect or its readers. Instead, he apologized "for my enthusiasm for my community and my exuberance to cover my community that led to this."

In March, Winder unveiled a new transparency standard for government, saying it would define West Valley City as Utah's most open and accessible community.

When asked whether he believes using a false name to report news about West Valley City goes against that commitment, Winder said he's more worried that the city gets "a fair shake" from the media.

"I'm more worried about a community working hard to change its image, and my neighbor who gets the Deseret News is only reading crime stories about our city," he said.

Winder had seven articles published in the Oquirrh Times as Richard Burwash between September and December 2010. The news stories included a three-part series in October 2010 touting reasons voters should approve a $25 million bond measure for parks and trails.

Winder quotes himself in each of those stories and also uses anonymous city employees as sources. Opponents of the bond and their concerns were not mentioned in any of the stories. The bond ultimately failed.

In a Jan. 5, 2011, Oquirrh Times story by Will Rhea, West Valley City's Proposition 3 was cited as the third most notable story of 2010. In the story, Rhea praises the newspaper's coverage by "staff reporter Richard Burwash and editorials from West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder."

Through Deseret Connect, Winder wrote two stories as Burwash that appeared in the Deseret News in April, one about the opening of a new Vietnamese Buddhist Temple and the other about the completion of the TRAX line in West Valley. Winder quotes himself in both stories.

In May, KSL.com published a story written by Winder as Burwash about a former UTOPIA contractor accused of extortion. Winder said he wanted to bring the court documents to light because other media hadn't reported them.

Winder has long been a UTOPIA supporter, and West Valley City is the largest city participating in the fiber-optics network. 

Also in May, Winder submitted a story about Taylorsville's city budget as Burwash. The story was actually written by his sister, Aimee Newton, who at the time was a city watchdog covering Taylorsville government on her blog. Newton since has been hired to handle public relations for Taylorsville.

Like Winder, Newton said she saw Deseret Connect as chance to get more news coverage about her city. Before being hired by Taylorsville, Newton wrote two stories published in the Deseret News using her real name.

Submitting a story under her brother's pen name, she says, "probably was a pretty dumb idea," though she doesn't see her or her brother's actions as dishonest or unethical.

"It was a creative way to get (city news) out there, but was it a good idea? Probably not," she said.

Winder said he stopped using the pen name in May, and instead decided to write for Deseret Connect under his actual name. He wrote two stories that were published on the newspaper's website, with his name and a note identifying him as the mayor of West Valley City.

In early June, as a result of Winder being a Deseret Connect contributor, the Deseret News implemented a new policy preventing people holding or running for political office from writing for the newspaper or its website, other than as opinion or editorial pieces identified as such.

Winder attempted to submit one other news story in late May about Tom Huynh, then a candidate for the West Valley City Council. Deseret Connect editors opted not to run the story, saying it unfairly profiled one candidate and not the others. The same story later appeared in the Oquirrh Times, with no byline.

Winder is quoted in the story, praising Huynh's character but not "taking sides or endorsing anyone" in the election. On Tuesday, Huynh became the first ethnic minority elected to the West Valley City Council.

Winder has been identified as a possible candidate for Salt Lake County mayor in 2012. Time will tell, he said, whether this incident will negatively impact his political future.

"There we be people who will be disappointed in me because of this," Winder said, "but there will also be people who respect me for putting my neck on the line to get good (news) coverage for our city."

Winder said the pen name comes from his family history. Richard Winder lived in the 1500s in Burwash, Sussex, England.

The photo Winder used for his Deseret Connect profile actually is an image of Peter Burwash, a tennis player, coach and motivational speaker who was inducted into the U.S. Tennis Association Hall of Fame for northern California in 2010.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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