November 20, 2017

My Woes with Newspaper Editors

I was one myself at one time. In fact, three times. But mostly a writer under the editor’s thumb. It’s always been a love-hate relationship.

Now a fresh incident has made me wince. And wonder.

A small matter, you might say, but not that small for me

It’s important for you to know I’m still sitting out the winter in Newport Beach, CA, a nice small city part way between Los Angeles and San Diego. Which means in one of the most pleasant year-around climate zones in the USA. Lucky me.

Now and then I get an urge to write a letter to the editor. Why? I sometimes ask myself that.

Newspapers don’t pay anything for letters, of course. It’s not a rewarding business in that sense. Editors on big papers get flooded with letters. They count on them, of course. Readers love reading letters. But space is at a premium (they say). Your odds of making the cut are bad. Sometimes you wonder why your brilliant, insightful, precious letter didn’t get in. Sometimes it defies logic. And there’s no recourse.

So why do I write letters? I’m not sure what Sigmund Freud would say about me. I have an easy answer. I find myself taking strong positions, and I like to have my say. I’ve had this itch for years. But I’ve never been a pest about it, or a nut, mind you.

This time I wrote a letter about a fellow named Jeffrey Hubbard, who is 55. It revolved around a sad and scandalous matter.

He’s the very recent school superintendent here, but before that held the same job in Beverly Hills upstate. He ran 31 schools with more than 3,000 employees. Hubbard was a top-notch administrator, a lot of people in the know say.

I wrote the letter to the Daily Pilot. It’s our local daily. It’s not a great paper, and not awful. It’s in that big gray zone in between. In fact, it’s owned by the Los Angeles Times, the giant paper hereabouts. It’s delivered to our door as a section of the LATimes.

Here’s what it was about. The School Department in Beverly Hills had hired an impressive consultant—Karen Anne Christiansen. She charged a lot but she got things done. And she was beautiful. In fact, sexy. And her regular contact in the department was its chief executive, Hubbard.

They hit if off. He thought highly of her services and rewarded her. Got her a bonus of $23,500. And increased her mileage expense account by hundreds of dollars. It all seemed on the up and up.

But then it was discovered some of their email messages were more than friendly. They were salacious—in fact, reported as “laced with sexual innuendo and double entendres.” Then it was discovered that some of the payments to her, while apparently open and above-board, had skirted some rules and regulations. In fact, had not been approved. That became a brouhaha.

The prosecution never charged a romantic relationship between the two—only “a special relationship.” But for sure many people concluded far more.

Hubbard insisted there had been absolutely no sexual relationship. He said the payments had been made through regular channels, and he assumed that they got the okay of everybody involved as they made their way through the system. Checks were cut for many suppliers. She was just another. What was the problem?

Well, charges were pressed. He and she were indicted. She went to trial first. Was found guilty. Is doing four years.

He got a leave of absence as he prepared for his date in court. But the schools paid his full salary during the five months that lasted. And one official after another, elected and appointed, came forward, spoke glowing words about Hubbard, and vouched for him. Their testimonials and solidarity were impressive.

The Daily Pilot covered the story from A to A. (Sometimes the Los Angeles Times did also. It was amusing to read an account in the Pilot, and then another in the same newspaper package delivered to us.)

The stories were good. As rich in detail as the papers could dish up. They became more frequent as the trial date arrived. Every story mentioned that this was a most serious offense, and Hubbard could get years in prison. Yes, years, just as his beautiful alleged accomplice had.

Throughout Hubbard projected a strong, confident stance. And his wife was standing by him—that was impressive. And the support from so many augured well–some community leaders were sitting in on the trial day after day.

There was speculation that he might get a short sentence. But every day the news was that California, and all its cities and towns, all its agencies and departments, right down to the local dogcatcher, were facing dire budget shortages. And here were these alleged gifts of honest taxpayers’ cash as payola in an alleged “improper relationship.”

One morning I picked up the Pilot. Its big headline at the top of the front page yelled: Hubbard guilty. Gets 60 days in jail. Ordered to pay $23,500 in restitution to Beverly Hills Unified Schools and $6,000 in fines.

I passed the Pilot to Annabelle. She read every word. People all over town were reading the story. Here it is as reported in a more detailed story:

By Lauren Williams

LOS ANGELES — Former Newport-Mesa Unified Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard was sentenced to 60 days in Los Angeles County Jail and given three years probation Thursday for misappropriating public funds.

Hubbard, 55, was not handcuffed while being taken into custody in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He showed little emotion.

Hubbard’s wife, Lupe, sobbed in the courtroom. When asked by Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus whether he had anything he wanted to give his wife before he began serving his term, Hubbard replied: “Just lots of love.”

Hubbard was convicted in January of two felony counts related to a previous job as superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District. He used his position there to enhance the car allowance for and make payments to a former subordinate, Karen Anne Christiansen. Hubbard was acquitted on a third count.

On Thursday, (Judge) Marcus ordered Hubbard to pay $23,500 in restitution to Beverly Hills Unified and $6,000 in fines. He was also barred from holding a position of public trust.

Marcus said he had no doubt that the jury came to the right decisions.

“It was almost a perfect crime,” Marcus said. “If anyone knew how to pull this off, it was Mr. Hubbard.”

The judge speculated that Hubbard was motivated to give Christiansen extra money based on sexually laced emails exchanged between the two.

“I think he did this to help Ms. Christiansen because he liked her,” Marcus said. “He had a yearning for this woman, and she hypnotized him.”

Hubbard told the Daily Pilot after his arrest that he did not have an affair with Christiansen. There was no evidence of a romantic relationship provided by the prosecution during the trial.

Prosecutor Max Huntsman wrote in a sentencing memo that “Dr. Hubbard’s conduct was egregious” and said that he “took advantage of a position of trust to misappropriate public tax money designated for the use of schoolchildren.”

Hubbard’s attorney, Sal Ciulla, vowed to appeal the conviction. He said in court that he would file a notice of appeal after Thursday’s sentencing.

Before the sentence was read, Ciulla said that over the course of the criminal proceedings he has gotten to know Hubbard better than any other client and said he was a man of integrity.

The judge received 41 letters supporting Hubbard, including from some Newport-Mesa Unified school board members pleading for leniency at the sentencing.

School board President Dave Brooks, trustees Martha Fluor and Walt Davenport, and Deputy Supt. and Chief Business Official Paul Reed wrote letters of support, calling Hubbard an “upstanding individual” and describing him as “transparent,” “compassionate,” “knowledgeable” and “possessing a keen sense of justice and honesty.”

Brooks submitted a nine-page packet to the court. In a two-page letter, Brooks called Hubbard an “outstanding superintendent.”

“With this conviction his career has ended. He will no longer be able to work in the arena for which he was held in high regard,” Brooks wrote. “He may or may not have been popular with a small, vocal minority, but he is effective in administrating very complicated school districts.”

One letter, which came from Beverly Hills, asked for a stringent sentence.

Ciulla said he did not know when Hubbard would be released from jail, although Marcus speculated that Hubbard would spend less than a week behind bars because of overcrowding.

“Frankly, I want him to have a taste of jail,” Marcus said. “I do want to send home the message that it was wrong.”

End of newspaper report.

And right then and there it happened. I got that awful itch again—to write a letter to the editor about it. I sat down at my computer even before I ate my breakfast. I kept it short. This is what I wrote:

“Subject: Hubbard gets six months.

Dear editor: It seems agreed that Jeffrey Hubbard was a talented and effective administrator, and that his crime is a career-buster. What a shame. At 55! A loss for him and society.

My recommendation: After his first 15 days in jail, he should be given a job. It would be tragic and stupid to spend all that time at the usual solitaire, schmoozing, and TV.

He should report on a regular schedule to the warden’s office to be a consultant on what he sees wrong with jail (any and all aspects) and advise on how to fix such things. Much needs to be fixed.

Coming from a jailbird with sharp insights, this would be a valuable public service. And could be a career re-opener for him. A win-win!

Then I signed my name and gave my address and phone number. And sent the email.

Then I waited a day. Then another. Then I got an email from the editor of the Pilot, John Carvalis. I knew him only from pieces he wrote on occasion for the paper. They were good. He told me, “I plan to publish this Wednesday.” That was about it.

But I was satisfied. After all, writers write to get read. Not to get rejected.

Then two days later, I picked up the Pilot. And right there on the front page, but with a much smaller headline, was a short story. Its headline said, “Hubbard released from jail.”

I was shocked. Stunned. Couldn’t believe it.

Immediately I thought, What does this mean? Is Carvalis going to trash my letter? After all, it was far less relevant now. Hubbard was being freed. He was in the clinker not even long enough to have a load of dirty laundry to wash. He probably hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of the warden yet. And immediately I got that itch again. I sent Carvalis another letter.

Here’s what I wrote—the first half is the same but the second half is new:

Dear Editor,

About: Your big headline on Page 1 on Feb. 24: “Hubbard gets 60 days”

I had a quick reaction to that and sent you the following letter, which is still not published. I have added on to it a bit as follows (the new part is in italic):

It seems agreed that Jeffrey Hunter was a talented and effective administrator. And that his crime is a career buster. What a shame. At 55! A loss for him and society.

My recommendation: After his first 15 days in jail, he should be given a job. Tragic and stupid to spend all that time at the usual solitaire, schmoozing, and TV. He should report on a regular schedule to the Warden’s Office–to be a consultant. On what he sees wrong with jail (any and all aspects) and advise on how to fix such things. Much needs to be fixed.

Coming from a jailbird with sharp insights, this would be a very valuable public service. And could be a career re-opener for him. A win-win!

Now today’s one-column headline, at the bottom of the page , but still on Page 1, thank goodness:

“Hubbard released from jail”

And the subhead: “Former Newport-Mesa Supt released after serving only four days of a two-month sentence for two felony charges.”

My new reaction: Only four days! Shocking! Scandalous! Every news account from the start of the sad story to its end kept saying he could get years! But: when found guilty, already an exception was made–no handcuffs as he was led off to start his sentence. Now this! Just four days in the clinker. It stinks. Impugns our whole justice system. Makes citizens smirk. Makes us scream for an inquiry.

And makes it a hundred times harder for him to salvage his career.

John Guy LaPlante

And I clicked “Send.”

How would Editor Carvalis react? I suspected he’d use my re-write, but not sure. All I could do was wonder. He had sent me a nice note the first time. Maybe he’d send me a note now. No note.

Wednesday dawned. The day Carvalis promised to print my letter. Annabelle always gets up earlier than I do, though I’m not a late-riser. I jumped out of bed the minute I woke up. Annabelle had the paper open on the table. Open to the Letters page.

There was my letter. Carvalis had printed it as promised. But … it was my original letter, not my revised letter.

How come? No idea. And as I said, no recourse. I studied the page. There were only three letters on it, I mean above the many ads that made up most of it. Mine was the last. All three fit together nicely. Maybe Carvalis felt that he did not have the space for my revised letter, which was twice as long as my first one. And I’ll never know.

As always when one of my letters gets rejected, I ask myself, Why bother? Why make this effort?

But of course I know why. I want to have my say. I believe it has value. I care.

I’m positive I’ll get that itch again. This is who I am and what I do.

And of course, this is why I write articles like this one you are now reading.

For the record: most of my dealings with editors have been pleasant by far.

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