Is Sen. Sherrod Brown's (D-OH) newspaper reporter wife campaigning on the Plain Dealer's dime?

Is it appropriate for the wife of a sitting U.S. senator to report on political issues for a major newspaper in his state?  If so, would propriety require that the reporter and the newspaper disclose the nature of the relationship between the reporter and the senator?  Do the rules change as election activities commence?  At what point are the reporter’s activities (and the newspaper’s subsidy of them) considered to be campaign contributions?

Those are questions people in Ohio are asking as the Third Base Politics blog reported tonight that Plain Dealer columnist and wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Connie Schultz, was spotted at a recent Tea Party Express rally in Lorain County.

In her column, titled “Politely Crashing the Tea Party,” Schultz “politely” ridiculed the number of attendees, the absence of presidential candidates, a speaker she didn’t agree with and three men (out of hundreds of attendees) who made rude comments to her.

However, Schultz made no mention of the fact that her three-hour visit to the Tea Party rally included finding a comfortable seat and videotaping a speech by Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is her husband’s likely opponent in the Ohio senate race in 2012.  It couldn’t have been easy to sit and listen to Mandel blaming her husband for Obamacare and calling him a leftist. On the other hand, as an avowed leftist herself, she may have been beaming with pride.  Watch her and judge for yourself:


In a follow-up “apology” column today, Schultz brushed off the criticism saying she made a “mistake”:

“I did not mention [Josh Mandel] because I wanted to avoid the appearance of singling him out for criticism, or promoting my husband. In retrospect, that was a mistake. You, the reader, should always be trusted to make up your own mind about whether my writing presents a conflict. That’s why transparency matters. I am in the unique position of being a newspaper columnist married to a U.S. senator. My opinions are my own, but I must be ever vigilant to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. I’m sorry I didn’t let you know Mandel showed up.”

Now, Schultz is no journalistic neophyte. She’s a syndicated columnist with a Pulitzer prize on her desk. She’s written a couple books and has written for the vaunted (ahem) Huffington Post. Holding her hands up to her cheeks and exclaiming, “Oh my goodness! I had no idea I would cause such a fuss!” just does not fly here.

On the issue of videotaping Mandel’s speech, Schultz claimed that an operative for the Democratic party with a video camera was escorted out of the stadium and she felt compelled, as a journalist, to exercise her free speech rights:

“I did this because I think it’s wrong for organizers of a public political event to cherry pick who is allowed to videotape a public official’s speech.

“As a resident of Avon, I knew taxpayers had approved a .25-percent income tax in 2007 to help pay for the stadium. I also knew the state exempted Avon from paying property tax on the facility, “with the understanding [that it] was devoted exclusively to ‘public use.’ ”

“When I held up my camera, I thought the journalist in me was making an in-your-face point about public forums.”

All Pro Freight Stadium, home of the Lake Erie Crushers, rents its facility out for private events. I am guessing that the Tea Party Express event was one such private event.  I’m no lawyer, but it would seem that funding with property taxes would not give every property owner in the city the right to control and direct private events in the stadium.  If a DNC activist with a camera was causing trouble, the group hosting the private event would be within their rights to have them removed from the event.

Schultz continued:

“What I failed to consider is that I am never just another journalist when the public official who is speaking is bashing my husband.

“Taping the speech gave the appearance that I was covering Mandel for The Plain Dealer. That was not, and never will be, the case. It doesn’t matter that I did nothing with my video, or that someone else posted a video of Mandel’s speech on You Tube. I should have taken a deep breath and kept my camera in my bag.”

Really, she just failed to consider that?  During Brown’s last campaign, Schultz took a leave of absence from her leftist column in the Plain Dealer.  This time around the Plain Dealer has promoted her to the front page of the Metro Section. (You can make up your own mind about whether conservatives get a fair shake in the paper that employs Senator Brown’s wife).

Senator Brown wanted to make it perfectly clear that his wife was not on campaign assignment, telling WKYC’s Tom Beres,

“She was not doing campaign work. Somebody that wanted to tape the speech was thrown out, probably illegally, because it’s a public-funded venue. And she taped it. She didn’t give it to the campaign. She’s a citizen. She was there.”

Of course, now that she’s been caught, she couldn’t give the tape to the campaign. Because, after all, that’s the most serious issue here. If Schultz was conducting opposition research on Treasurer Mandel on the Plain Dealer’s dime – on behalf of Brown’s campaign – then it would need to be reported as a campaign contribution by the Plain Dealer.  Otherwise, it would be a violation of campaign finance laws. That would be aside from the serious ethical boundaries the Plain Dealer would have crossed in having its employees conducting campaign activities.

Beyond that is the blatant impropriety demonstrated by the Plain Dealer and Schultz.  Her bio fails to mention the connection between Schultz and Brown even though she writes consistently about political issues.  Some recent columns have read like Democratic Party talking points: “Voter fraud is just a dark GOP fantasy,” “Gay marriage just isn’t a problem,” “Teachers undeservedly face bashing and bullying” [by Republicans].

If Schultz is going to blatantly promote the policies of the DNC, she needs to clearly and conspicuously disclose her marriage to Brown.

In addition, if she is conducting campaign activities on company time, it needs to be reported as such.  Furthermore, if there are other Plain Dealer reporters and employees engaging in campaign activities, they must report it.  In fact, perhaps there should be an investigation to find out if Schultz or any other Plain Dealer employees are donating their time to political campaigns while on company time.  These are lines than should not be blurred.