09 August 2007

On Not Pressing the Question

As the disclaimer on this blog makes plain, I speak here for myself, not in any way for my employer. That said, I'd like to share a story relating to that employment.

On Friday, August 3, two committees of the Senate, having jointly investigated a scandal at the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued their report. I won't go into the particulars -- it would bore some of you, and those of you whom it would interest already know of at least the general outlines. For now, just take it as a given that there was a scandal, and that the New York Times ran a very prominent story on the Senate report Saturday morning.

I was supposed to play catch up or (better) leapfrog with the Times. So over the weekend I read the report, (700 pages) and on Monday I started making some phone calls to flesh out my story. From my reading, I knew that the Senate staffers had taken a rather negative view of the Inspector General (I-G) of the SEC, Walter Stachnik. So, playing the journalistic game according to Hoyle, I called the I-G's office.

I expected a standard responsive comment. You know the type. "I believe all my actions were appropriate and any implication to the contrary by the investigators is misguided," or words to that effect. Regular news readers encounter quotes like that all the time.

I didn't get that sort of statement, though. Instead, the secretary at the I-G's office told me that Stachnik no longer worked there. This was news to me, though I rather assumed at this point that it had been properly announced perhaps weeks before and I had simply missed it. I asked whether he had left forwarding contact information. The secretary said, "No, he's retired." So I now had a mental image of Mr. Stachnik on a Florida beach.

If I had the proper bloodhound instincts, I would no doubt have pressed to learn how LONG he's been retired. I might then have discovered the real buried scoop in this situation ... that Stachnik "retired" on the previous Friday ... the day the Senate committees put out their report. As Ned Flanders, from The Simpsons, might have put it: "What an amazing coincidinkalidink."

But I didn't think to press the nice lady on the other end of the phone for a day of departure. I just asked whether a successor had been appointed. "No, not yet."

This, then, is in the story I wrote on the underlying SEC scandal for our website and news service. "Mr. Stachnik has since retired from his post as inspector general, and that office said on Monday ... that there has been no new appointee."

Rather lame, but it's there. Even before we posted that story, I had written a comment on Greg Newton's blog, informing him that Stachnik was retired. But there were other things to do, and I didn't pursue the particulars.

They've come out since. An anti-naked-short-selling activist, David Patch, probably tipped off by either my comment on Greg's blog or by my story proper, called Stachnik's office the next morning and did the pressing I hadn't done. Then Greg did so himself.

The SEC hadn't announced Stachnik's retirement, there was none of the usual "thank you for your years of dedicated service" stuff. I didn't know this, either, until it started popping up in the blogosphere, because I had simply assumed I had just MISSED the official announcement and that with a little surfing I could find it.

"Never assume anything, the word divides into three parts" as Felix Unger once explained. Well, new proof of that principle. I couldn't find it because uit had never been issued.

For those of you who read Newton's follow-up Wednesday morning, I'm the "Mr. F" he references.

[Mental note: when you hear something unexpected, press it.]

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.