By M.D. Kittle
The left likes to call it “an October surprise,” a nefarious attempt by the “right-wing” news media to sink the Democrat’s candidate for governor in the closing days of Wisconsin’s heated campaign.
SPOILER ALERT: It wasn’t.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Wisconsin Reporter’s investigative report on Mary Burke’s troubled professional resume is that we were the first media outlet to report on what has been described as a “game-changer” story in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
True, we broke the story on Burke, the Madison liberal who spent the past year selling her executive experience at her family-owned company as admittance to the governor’s mansion, on Oct. 28 – exactly one week before the general election. Burke, at the time, was in a dead-heat race with incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Oct. 28 was, by the way, the same day that a good source tipped off Wisconsin Reporter that an insider had information that Burke was fired from Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle Corp. in the early 1990s by her brother due to “non-performance.”
As I have told people since the story hit our Watchdog.org national website, if the tip had come in six months before, Wisconsin Reporter would have published it six months before.
What was most amazing to me, as I found out while talking to high-placed executives at Trek, is that Mary Burke’s checkered resume was perhaps the worst-kept secret in parts of Wisconsin and there is strong evidence to suggest that reporters at some of the state’s largest dailies had been notified of the discrepancies long before.
At first, it seemed like one of those too-strange-to-be true stories. After spending a couple of hours tracking down phone numbers of former Trek executives and getting nowhere, I started to think maybe there wasn’t anything here. Some wouldn’t talk, others couldn’t remember much from 20 years ago, many couldn’t be reached for comment.
And then Trek’s former human resources director called me back.
He said Burke, who had long struggled to explain her two-year work hiatus in the early to mid-1990s after mysteriously leaving the company her father started, was fired by her own family following overseas financial losses and plummeting morale among Burke’s European sales staff. The HR director said the sales team threated to quit if Burke was not removed from her position as director of European Operations, and that Burke was made to come back to headquarters and personally apologize to the employees about her poor performance.
The source was good. They don’t get much better than a human resources director with a company for more than a dozen years. But he had some baggage. He was active in local GOP politics and had made some incendiary comments on his Facebook page.
The source was eventually crucified in the press by a mainstream media that was livid about being beaten on this “bombshell” story. Instead of looking into the allegations, they attacked the messenger. For a time, anyway.
We had four other former executives or managers who corroborated the HR director’s accounts, asserting that, under Burke’s leadership, Trek’s operations in key markets such as Germany bled money. These were very good sources, one in particular extremely high placed. The trouble was, none of them wanted to go on the record. They feared retribution from the company, and some had retirements at stake.
The mainstream players suddenly found one top executive, Trek’s former president during the time in question, who went on the record and corroborated Wisconsin Reporter’s story. Every detail. The mainstreamers reported the executive’s account with clinched fists and teeth. Even then, their headlines were, “Ex-Trek execs with conservative ties say Mary Burke was forced out.”
Because, they implied, conservatives cannot be trusted to act without political motivation.
Many of the same news outlets wrote scathing commentaries about that terrible, no-good Wisconsin Reporter, “a pseudo-journalistic publication bankrolled by conservative foundations,” as the Milwaukee Journal editorial board put it. Wisconsin’s largest newspaper said this, “The story was published by the conservative mouthpiece less than a week before the election — a classic political trick, an October surprise of innuendo and half-truths. It was intended by Walker partisans, if not the conservative mouthpiece itself, to confuse voters.”
Apparently confusing the voters is shorthand for telling the truth, giving Wisconsin’s electorate the critical information they needed that the mainstream media either was too lazy or, more egregious, too partisan to report on.
Feeling the heat, Burke and her campaign quickly called the story “ridiculous,” filled with “baseless allegations,” right after the candidate acknowledged for the first time that her position at Trek was “eliminated” after a company “reorganization.” As one political observer colorfully put it, successful companies don’t typically downsize their most successful employees, and Trek certainly has built a reputation as a successful company over the years.
While we were excoriated in the mainstream for our “October Surprise,” Wisconsin Reporter heard from many Wisconsin voters – conservatives, independents, even some liberals – who said they were glad that there are still organizations committed to investigative reporting, doing the important work that mainstream publications have all but abdicated.