The Year in Pretending to Break Stories

On Sept. 25, former Huntington Beach Mayor Pamela Houchen wiped tears from her eyes as U.S. District Judge David O. Carter prepared to hand her the stiffest possible sentence for her role in a condo conversion scam first exposed by the Weekly: 37 months in federal prison. As the reporter who originally broke the story of how Houchen illegally converted Huntington Beach apartment units into condominiums, the highlight of the day for me wasn't watching her bury her face in Kleenex. It was hearing one of her victims, phony condo owner Renee Tarnow, tell Judge Carter that the Weekly had originally exposed Houchen's actions in October 2003.

I relished that moment, because I knew there was no way the tidbit would make it into TheOrange County Register'scoverage of Houchen's tearful sentencing hearing.Sure enough, in an article that ran the following morning, the paper promptly took credit for breaking the story in May 2004—by which time I had already written several articles about it and an open letter to Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth Small demanding he arrest Houchen.

Although the Los Angeles Times isn't too proud to jump on stories first exposed by the Weekly, unlike the Register the paper actually has the professional respect and journalistic ethics not to pretend it was first with the facts. The Houchen story wasn't the first time the Register would pretend to break an important story that had already been exposed by the Weekly, but with only three months left in the year, I figured it wouldn't happen again until, say, January.

Fat chance.

On Dec. 2, the Register printed a story, “Police admit planting evidence; Huntington Beach chief says officers routinely employ tactic with civilian vehicles as part of training exercises.” The article claimed the “training practice” of planting guns in cars during traffic stops to test rookie officers came to light the previous day, when Tom Cox, who was arrested for drunk driving in January 2006, discovered that an officer who had planted a loaded gun in his car had been cleared of wrongdoing.

Oh really? In fact, this “training practice” first came to light Nov. 9, when my colleague R. Scott Moxley published “Training Day: Police admit they planted a gun at Huntington Beach crime scene.” In case you were wondering, yes, Moxley's story was about exactly the same incident.

Perhaps the Register is finally turning over a new leaf. On Dec. 17, the paper reported that Snowball Express founder Michael Kerr was in hot water over his faked resume and failure to pay child support. This time, the paper didn't pretend to have the scoop. “In the past week, news reports have resurrected his past,” the Reg stated, referring specifically to National Public Radio.

Fair enough, if by “news reports” the paper was referring to Gustavo Arellano's Dec. 7 Weekly story “Snowball Success,” which exposed Kerr's faked resume and failure to pay child support, or his Dec. 15 interview on National Public Radio.

If you haven't already figured out the pattern here, you probably shouldn't be reading the Weekly. Instead, we suggest the Register.Just don't expect much original reporting—in October, the paper avoided layoffs by obtaining the voluntary resignation of 40 of its most seasoned reporters. Of course, you could always try the Cliff's Notes version of the paper, the OC Post, which the Register launched in August for readers who can't make their way through a strenuous 400-word news story—clearly, they need something shorter and punchier.

With big pictures.


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