Where lies the truth?

It’s a common happenstance to set out in search of one thing, and find something else by accident. Columbus, remember was actually looking for a shortcut to India when he stumbled across the New World.

And so it is with the News & Observer. It set out to uncover the facts behind the state’s mental-health mess, and seems to have come across a wide-ranging (and possibly extra-legal) effort to keep information from public view.

Earlier this week, North Carolina governor Mike Easley fired the spokesperson for the department that oversees mental-health care. That spokesperson, Debbie Crane, subsequently went public with the startling allegation that the state’s public affairs staffers are regularly instructed that any email messages to the governor’s office should be deleted after being sent. She also later revealed that at least one advocacy organization, The John Locke Foundation, was on a don’t-return-their-calls list — again, at the behest of the governor’s office.

The first, if true, feels like the deliberate destruction of public records. (Remember, that email system belongs to the public. We just let state officials use it.) The second, if true, feels like petty and small-minded treatment of a respected organization simply because it doesn’t share the governor’s political ideology.

It’s bad enough that the state’s mental-health system started coming apart at the seams under Easley’s watch. Now we can add “vindictive” and “conspiratorial” to the bill of alleged particulars.

Of course, at this point we only have charge and denial. Crane says Easley’s office actively sought to delete written communications, and Easley’s office says ‘taint so. Why should we believe Crane and not the governor’s staff?

Two reasons: First, a former N&O staffer whose judgment I trust (and who dealt with Crane while pursuing news stories) had this to say about her: “She was fabulous.” Considering the structural tension between reporters and government mouthpieces, that’s a remarkable and rare endorsement of Crane’s integrity.

Second, N&O investigative reporter Pat Stith — a man whose word can be taken at face value, without hesitation — reports that Crane figured prominently in an odd situation five years ago as Stith sought to interview a state official. In his account of that meeting (which you can read here), Stith details how Crane directed the state official being interviewed to not lie — as he allegedly had been ordered to do by the governor’s staff.

As far as I’m concerned, the benefit of the doubt goes to Crane. I hope the N&O stays on the chase here.

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