We answer Nat’s pre-slap question: Was it reasonable? Was it fair?



By now, the Capitol rumor mill has moved on. Mostly.

But Wednesday morning, about the time Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nat Herz was filing his news story about being slapped by Sen. David Wilson of Wasilla, the text “dings” were burning up phones: Did you hear Wilson had hit Nat in the hallway of the Capitol?

The jokes were running along the lines of,  “Well, who among us hasn’t wanted to do that?” And the memes, like this one, began flying between legislative staffers.

The ostensibly “playful” incident (Wilson’s word) was an answer to Herz’s hallway accostment of Wilson, with tape rolling. He wanted to know whether Wilson thought a negative story that Herz had written for the Alaska Dispatch News met with his approval.

Herz was asking the senator: Was that reasonable? Fair?


Herz had written that Wilson filed legislation that would cut funding to some social service nonprofits in the Mat-Su Valley, but would not hurt the agency where Wilson was most recently employed.

The Sunday headline gave the bias away: “Wasilla senator who worked for social service agency proposes to revoke grants for others.”

Senate Bill 90 would end the Human Services Community Matching Grant program of the Department of Health and Social Services. It’s a small grant program that goes to municipalities and boroughs with a population of 65,000, and then local nonprofit agencies can apply for them locally. There’s nothing in the bill that singles out any specific agency nor exempts Wilson’s former employer from cuts.

In fact, Wilson’s former employer, Alaska Family Services, has received these grants from time to time and would conceivably be affected.

Wilson has had issues with the accountability of the grant program. No one goes back to see if the grants are being used effectively, or for the purpose for which they’ve been granted, he’s said. Wilson, having worked in social services, knows a thing or two about how grants get used.

Three communities get these grants: the Municipality of Anchorage, Fairbanks North Star Borough, and the Matanuska Susitna Borough. These communities must provide a match to the nonprofits that win the grants, which are meant for soup kitchens, homeless shelters, day shelters, food pantries, and distribution centers for clothing and sleeping bags for the very poor.

According to Herz’ story, the reporter found the bill had “the notable exception of the agency where Wilson worked through the end of last year.”

Was use of the words “notable exception” fair, or did it show bias?

Alaska Family Services, with a budget of $7 million plus, provides wrap-around services, including alcohol and substance abuse screening, case management, behavioral health, psychiatric and substance abuse help, child care, sexual assault care, domestic violence shelter, and family violence prevention programs, and supervised visitation in  coordination with the Office of Children’s Services. It gets grants from multiple sources, including state, federal and individual donations. The agency is working toward growing its own endowment so it can move away from public funds in the future.

According to Herz’ story, “the bill has prompted questions because of its effect, and Wilson’s refusal to explain why he introduced it.”

Was “prompted questions” fair? Who is prompting the questions? The writer didn’t say if he was wondering aloud or if someone else had called him….someone who didn’t like the bill, for example.

At a time when the House Democrat-led majority is trying to impose a massive income tax (and a beer tax) on the Alaska workforce, other lawmakers, like Wilson, are proposing budget cuts. Senate Bill 90 is a $1.5 million cut to the $4.1 billion state budget.

Perhaps Wilson didn’t feel he needed to explain it to Herz, which “prompts” the question: Is a reporter entitled to an answer?

Herz’s story went on: “But he [Wilson] wouldn’t give an explanation for why he’s proposing to eliminate the grant program — saying that one would emerge when and if his bill gets its first hearing.”

“There hasn’t been a bill hearing,” Wilson said to Herz. “Thus the bill should stand for itself.”

The answer is not a refusal, per se, but is a brush off, to be sure.

Herz continues in his story to raise the “prompted questions” — a reporter’s way of saying he has an angle:

“SB 90 isn’t the first action by Wilson as an elected official that’s raised questions about his relationship with Alaska Family Services, where he was director of a domestic violence and sexual assault program, supervising outreach efforts and an emergency shelter.

“But Wilson’s employer through his election, the nonprofit Alaska Family Services, wasn’t among the 11 organizations that received the most recent round of grants.”

Yes, they don’t really apply for a lot of these particular grants to begin with. These are small grants.

“The group didn’t apply for this year’s grant. It got about $10,000 for a tobacco control program in 2015 and 2016.

“But separate requests for $35,000 in 2014 and $30,000 in 2015 — to support a shuttle service to drive clients to appointments — were rejected.”

Was that fair reporting?

Is Herz implying that because the agency didn’t get a couple of grants in 2014 and 2015 that somehow Wilson is committing an act of retribution with SB 90?

Herz goes on to say that “Mat-Su elected leaders and nonprofits appear to be uniformly against Wilson’s proposal.”

Is that characterization of “appear to be” fair reporting? It’s a lot like asking a kid if he is in favor of having his allowance reduced. Of course local leaders don’t want to see State money cut. Or do they? After all, with the state money, the local governments need to cough up a matching grant, so there are costs to receiving that money.

One person quoted by Herz is Michelle Overstreet, the founder and director of My House, a well-regarded agency that might see funding reduced if the grant program goes away. She said, “It’s hard to imagine that there isn’t an ulterior motive for cutting funding that wouldn’t benefit an organization that he’s championing the cause for. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Herz continues on the theme that since Wilson used to work at Alaska Family Services, Wilson has played favorites with the agency, even when he was on the Wasilla City Council — allegations that Wilson says are simply not true.

Wilson told Must Read Alaska he doesn’t have a hard time with two-thirds of Herz’ story, but says there was heavy cherry-picking of information that made one-third of the story simply incorrect.

The Sunday story about Wilson’s bill “prompts” another question: Was Herz used by some sources to get back at Wilson, because he’s been asking for accountability in the HSS grant program?

“I didn’t really mind the story,” Wilson said this morning, in a telephone conversation with MRAK. “Everyone has a job to do, and he’s (Nat’s) going to do his job and I’ve got mine to do.”

None of the above facts and prompted questions are meant to condone a physical slap in the face. But they do go a long way toward explaining the level of frustration Sen. Wilson was probably feeling at the time.

[Read: Media-Lawmaker relations: A slap in the face?]