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Butterfly Meets Bazooka 

An L.A. Times community news reporter is fired for e-mailing a congressman

Wednesday, Aug 7 2002
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Brian Robin likes to peruse the hilariously irreverent, progressive Web site Bartcop.com. One Sunday night in July, in the privacy of his Lancaster home, Robin came upon an item about an appearance by Congressman Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) on CNN, where he repeated the Republican Party mantra that blames the year‘s corporate criminality on Bill Clinton.

Robin couldn’t let Thomas, a career politician who wields great power as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, get away with it. Robin put together an e-mail, with the opening salvo ”Surely you can‘t be that stupid,“ and went on to compare Clinton’s achievements to Bush‘s and Cheney’s various business failures and wrongdoings. Along the way, he took a swipe at Thomas himself: ”I‘m not a morally bankrupt Republican congressman who opts for partisanship ahead of truth.“

And then, says Robin, who covered high school sports and golf for two years for the L.A. Times community edition in Ontario, ”I brainfarted.“

His personal e-mail server wasn’t working, so he sent his critical message on his company‘s e-mail system. Two days later, he got a phone call from Thomas’ office simply asking him to confirm that he worked at the Times. He did so. Later that day, he was summoned by Tom Johnson, lead editor of the Times‘ community sections, and suspended; a week later, he was terminated. ”I knew when I was called in on the 23rd that I would be fired,“ he says. ”My boss went to the mat for me on it, but it was clearly a done deal.“

”It was a stupid thing to do,“ says the 37-year-old sportswriter. ”I knew that sending that out on company e-mail was wrong, and I deserved a suspension. But I never dreamt that the Times would fire me over this. Maybe a slap on the wrist or a reprimand, but I have a pristine employment record over the two years I worked there.

“It’s like using a bazooka on a butterfly.”

The Times‘ policy, as written in the employee handbook, is that the company e-mail system is not to be used for personal reasons. (That’s nice, but it‘s hard to imagine that Times employees don’t e-mail friends and spouses, or occasionally book airline fares online. Doesn‘t everybody?) My phone message seeking comment from editor John Carroll eventually made it to Times spokesman David Garcia, who said he cannot discuss personnel-related issues. You can’t blame them for ducking on this one.

Robin said he couldn‘t find out exactly what transpired after Thomas’ office got his e-mail. Did Thomas himself play a role in getting the sportswriter fired? No one is saying at the congressman‘s office one way or the other. “I contacted Thomas’ office in Kern County, and they referred me to the D.C. office,” Robin said. “I tried to call his chief of staff and left two unanswered messages and was referred back by one of the people in the office to my own congressman (Buck McKeon). My wife talked to them, and they suggested looking into the House Ethics Committee.”

Calls to Thomas‘ office and his press secretary Jason Poblete didn’t elicit much. Both gave a terse “no comment at this time.” When asked who reviewed the congressman‘s e-mail, Poblete repeated: “No comment.”

For now, the father of two young children is worried about his future. “I would love to be able to confront Bill Thomas and ask him why he or his staff are so thin-skinned and ask them why they did this to my career and my family. And I’d also like to ask them if they‘d have contacted the Times if the e-mail had been some complimentary thing. All I did was exercise my right of free speech, and it got completely blown out of hand.”

It’s not only the congressman or his underlings who blew the transgression out of proportion. You have to wonder why the Times caved in, and erred in its heavy-handed treatment of Robin.

The complete text of Brian Robin‘s offending e-mail can be seen at www.laweekly.com.

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