Several weeks ago in this space I made my best case for why we endorse candidates. In a nutshell, I wrote that it was our duty to do research and offer our opinions to help our readers since we do so with every other important issue that comes along. We also see it as a public service to help readers who otherwise would have to do the research themselves.
Then came the Kris DeRego story. DeRego is a Board of Education candidate for the Windward district, one of eight hopefuls we endorsed. On Sept. 14, George O'Hanlon, general manager of the Liquor Collection store at Ward Warehouse, called to say that he had seen our endorsement. He alleged that DeRego stole thousands of dollars of merchandise from the store in 2005.
Within 10 minutes or so, an e-mail popped up that showed what appeared to be DeRego posing for sexually suggestive photos with accompanying Xanga and MySpace Web pages that contained disturbing information, purportedly written by DeRego.
When two messages alleging wrongdoing on the part of a political candidate — one of which is anonymous — come so close together and so close to the election, my first reaction is that it could be part of a smear. So the evidence must be strong for us to write a story.
We assigned a reporter to the story that day and DeRego explained that he stole nothing but agreed to make partial restitution because it was cheaper than fighting the allegations. No police report was filed and DeRego was neither charged nor convicted. He said the Internet postings on his Xanga and MySpace accounts were posted by an ex-girlfriend. He claimed that his face had been Photoshopped to the sexually suggestive photos. He told us that if we checked the court files, we would find a temporary restraining order against him. We found three, two of which were linked to the ex-girlfriend. All involved harassment but no allegations of violence or criminal activity.
We debated what we had and it came down to this: his word against an ex-employer that he took money with no charges filed; his word against an ex-girlfriend that he was harassing her and no charges filed; and photos that could have been posted by anyone.
We chose not to write a story. But on Saturday, DeRego said he made a written admission to the theft allegations to resolve a dispute with liquor store management. He reiterated that he had paid restitution but also said he forfeited numerous bottles of expensive wine to the store.
At that point, we decided we could no longer support DeRego's candidacy and we included that information in the Sunday Advertiser story. Editorial and Opinion Editor Jeanne Mariani-Belding called DeRego to notify him of our decision and he said he understood. DeRego wrote a commentary defending himself in Tuesday's paper.
Many readers believe we should not endorse candidates and one in particular argued that the DeRego situation is a perfect example of why we shouldn't. His point, well taken, was that readers will assume that if we endorse someone that we've done all our homework, including background checks.
What I explained was that we do our homework when it comes to the issues and that's primarily how we develop our endorsement. DeRego was selected based on his positions on the issues, which he presented to us during an interview and through our endorsement questionnaire. We also look at candidates through various forums and talk to people in the community. We obviously do not have time to do full background checks on the 250 or so candidates who are running in this year's election and even if we did, there is no guarantee we'd find everything.
A court check on DeRego would have uncovered the three TROs but no theft allegations. The information contained in the TROs would not have changed our mind about endorsing him. True, it would have forced us to ask more questions of him, but in the end I think we'd come to the conclusion that the TROs amounted to a "he-said, she-said" situation between a boyfriend and a girlfriend that would never have found its way into print.
None of this absolves us of our responsibility to deal with allegations of impropriety among candidates quickly and thoroughly and I cannot say that our system is perfect. We do extensive review of the backgrounds of major candidates and the DeRego situation probably requires us to develop a new system to scrutinize some of the lesser-known candidates.
Who gets included in that process and who gets left out is the larger question.