In any election cycle, news of any impropriety can cost the election for a candidate or elected official. Even if an initial news report is later corrected, the original story always carries more weight and attention. Thus it is imperative that such alleged behavior must be confirmed and clearly detailed. But this is not what happened on Sept. 7, 2016.
The New York 52nd State Senate race was apparently the undisclosed target of an article alleging that incumbent State Senator Fred Akshar was the target of a special investigation. This of course would be a serious charge, and could alter election outcomes. The article, Special Prosecutor Reviewing Abuse of Power Allegations Against Fred Akshar [Update: The article has been removed by WICZ – FOX40 – without comment or apology], makes several claims including official misconduct and interfering with an investigation in multiple cases. The article goes on to cite Otsego County D.A. John Muehl as the source for this information. This is incorrect.
Earlier this year, a personal rant on Facebook gained some attention. This rant was passed on to us as a possible lead for a news story. That Facebook posting alleged duplicate claims made by Barbara Fiala in 2015, when she ran for the State Senate seat as a Democrat. The core of the allegations was a 2009 incident that involved then-Officer Katie Newcomb, and tangentially then-Captain Fred Akshar. That case was reviewed by the Broome County Sheriff’s office and the Broome County D.A. Gerald Mollen (a Democrat) at the time, and was determined to have no merit. Because of the determination from both agencies, and lack of any evidence of further complications or wrong-doing, the allegation by Fiala, and subsequently on Facebook, gained no credible traction.
What did apparently happen is that D.A. Steven Cornwell asked for a special prosecutor to review the case, to confirm the conclusion and and avoid the appearance of partiality as both Cornwell and Akshar are Republicans. This is a speculation suggested by D.A. Muehl, as he was unaware of exactly why the case had been referred to a special prosecutor when he spoke with us on Sept. 8, 2016. But what he was sure of, is that the case was offered to him in May or June of this year by Justice Michael V. Coccoma, that there was no urgency indicated in review of the case – which may be beyond the statute of limitations, and that there was no interest in any of this until September 2016.
Further, D.A. Muehl stated that the abovementioned article was factually incorrect at several points. The facts are that there is no investigation of State Senator Akshar. There is no connection of the 2009 incident and the 2013 Aaron Powell murder case. D.A. Muehl told us,
“I’ve been getting calls all over, people thinking that I’m investigating the Senator. I have nothing to investigate on the Senator. There is nothing here about the Senator.”
And in reference to the 2013 homicide,
“I remember [Fox40 news reporter] bringing it up, and I said no it doesn’t have anything to do with that [double homicide]. It has to do with the DWI in 2009. I don’t know anything about allegations of the homicide.”
We reached out to the Office of Senator Akshar for comment as well. Emmanuel Priest responded for the Senator saying, “We are not aware of any investigation. We were not notified by D.A. Cornwell or D.A. Muehl, and only learned about it from the news inquiry.”
We attempted to speak with Broome County D.A. Steven Cornwell, but our request with his office has not been responded to at the time of this article.
Those are the facts of the situation at hand. But there are serious questions that must be asked at this time. Why would a news organization claim an investigation is on-going when it does not exist? Why, after several months of disregard by the news media, is the review only just gaining attention – just as the general public begins to focus on local and State primaries and elections? Who could benefit from inaccurate reporting?
These questions must be asked as the timing is suspect. FOX40 and the other collective news media in the Southern Tier of NY had no interest in the story in May, right up til September. Because the main question – was Fred Akshar involved in an abuse of power – was answered first in 2009 and again in 2015. Thus there was nothing to report, so why was an article claiming what was known to be incorrect published?
News media, because of the access and power they control, are held to a different standard than the public. Hearsay and unconfirmed facts can never be taken as truth, even in commentary. But in this case the damage has already been done. Even as WBNG is releasing an accurate coverage of this news story, they omit what FOX40 did. There is no apology nor retraction. Voters who limit their access to information on the basis that they are being told accurate information have now been deceived. It is a hit to the credibility of all news media in the region.
There may have been an error. There could have been a source that misled the media as WBNG hints at in their article – “A member of the Otsego District Attorney’s Office earlier Thursday told Action News State Senator Fred Akshar was also under review by Muehl. We’ve now learned that was misinformation.” If so, FOX40 should clarify that, and be as bold in their correction as they were in the initial story.
Elections are difficult for the candidates and incumbents, and even moreso for the average American who has little time to follow events and politics day by day. The loss or win of an election should be about the facts at hand, the record of the candidates involved, and the credibility of each candidate to live up to campaign promises. News media should never guide voters to a predetermined answer based on inaccuracies, and even political commentary must be on guard from being too loose in connecting fact to conclusion.
According to a study by the Media Insight Project in 2015,
“Nearly 90 percent of Americans say it’s extremely or very important that the media get their facts correct, according to the study. About 4 in 10 say they can remember a specific incident that eroded their confidence in the media, most often one that dealt with accuracy or a perception that it was one-sided.”
We can all guess if this incident helps make it 5 out of 10 or not.
** Update – 9/8/2016, 7:20pm – NY 52nd State Senator Fred Akshar contacted us with a further updated statement about misinformed article that has since been pulled by WICZ (FOX40) without apology to the public. The statement is,
“I was unaware of any investigation until the media called my office about it. Last year, my opponent at the time ran commercials attacking me on this subject, but I’ve always been forthright on this incident. I’m focused on doing the job I was elected to do and serving the people of the 52nd District.”
We thank Senator Akshar and his office for responding immediately to our request for information on this and other news stories in the past, as well as the further update. It is the policy of M V Consulting, Inc. that any response, commentary, and/or critique involving a candidate, politician, pundit in any article or commentary will always be published verbatim. **