Friday, March 18, 2016
Student journalists still kicking up dust
The San Antonio College Ranger celebrates its 90th anniversary this year — a remarkable milestone for a college newspaper.
What I’m wondering is this:
When did it start being what a good newspaper should be — a pain in the pitoot to people in power?
I know the Ranger was one at least 37 years ago.
That’s when eight maintenance workers decided they wanted to blow the whistle on corruption at the college.
But, they wondered, to whom should they take their story?
“We thought about going to Paul Thompson,” one of them told me back then.
He was referring to the late tough-talking front-page columnist for the late afternoon San Antonio News.
“But we figured no one would believe him.”
It was a good decision, but not for that reason.
Readers would have believed Thompson.
But as an item columnist who had to fill his space six days a week, he wouldn’t have had the time to check out what the men were telling him.
So on the advice of an honest mid-level college official, they went to the student-run Ranger.
Under the guidance of a fearless journalism department chairman and an excellent faculty, two student journalists —Trent Everett and Richard Smith — spent six weeks working on the story while also going to classes.
The front page of the paper ran the headline, “Maintenance men allege personnel, supplies misused.”
The story detailed work done by college employees with college equipment during work hours at the homes of various college officials.
There was the board chairman, M.C. Gonzales, who happened also to be an assistant district attorney.
A crew of five or six re-piped his backyard, installed two used campus air conditioners at his house, and did carpentry for him.
He left the board shortly before the article appeared.
Then there was a vice president, a director of operations and the director of physical plants.
They also got air conditioning work, plumbing and carpentry.
There was more, but the school term ran out before the students could investigate and document further allegations.
But the student reporting led to a reinvigorated investigation headed by a tenacious young prosecutor named Keith Burris and top investigator Jack Janysek.
They found the corruption was so widespread and bold that the crooks got careless.
Thousands of dollars in bribes were paid by check.
Two administrators and the former board chairman were indicted.
I did a magazine cover story on the controversy and uncovered some more juicy corruption.
Still more would come out later when a legislative committee held hearings and granted immunity to some of the players.
Nearly the entire upper echelon of the college, starting with the president, was replaced.
So, by the voters, was the board majority.
And it all started with eight angry maintenance men and two student reporters.
I was on the San Antonio College campus last week and picked up a copy of the Ranger.
I was delighted to see they are still kicking up dust.
The lead headline read: “AG rules in favor of open records request in Follins’ removal.”
The story was about Dr. Craig Follins, who was fired from his job as president of the new Northeast Lakeview College last October, with just two months left on his contract.
Yet Follins was given a newly-created job in the central office for the same $205,000 he made as president.
The Ranger wanted to know why Follins was fired and yet kept on.
After all, that’s a lot of taxpayer and tuition money.
They filed a request for documents on the issue under the Texas Public Information Act.
District officials asked the attorney general to rule that they could keep the records secret.
Now that the attorney general has ruled in favor of the student newspaper — and a similar request from the Express-News — the district administration is considering filing a lawsuit to keep us from judging their stewardship.
They’ll pay the legal fees with your money, not theirs.
Meanwhile, I’m betting on the kids.