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Getting DHHS to answer questions (with more on the bodyguard controversy)

Rose Hoban, NC Health News [1]

Rose Hoban, NC Health News

Rose Hoban of N.C. Health News [2], a non-profit journalism website focused on covering state public health policy, penned this editorial [3] over the weekend about the increasing difficult time reporters are having in getting questions answered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Hoban recounted how she and her staff, since reporting what Hoban called unflattering news in May about DHHS, have been stonewalled by the agency’s public affairs staff. The news group has resorted to public records requests in order to get information from the public agency.

From Hoban’s piece [3], published Sunday in the (Raleigh) News & Observer:

[T]he closing of the lines of communication between DHHS and reporters in the past six months has been troubling. Ricky Diaz, the lead press officer at DHHS, has been quoted in many stories about issues in his department, but many reporters have increasingly voiced concern about the increased time it takes to get responses to requests for information – if they get a response at all. And while Diaz may be quoted, there have been few opportunities for exchanges between Secretary of DHHS Aldona Wos and other leaders in the department.

Recently, the N&O reported that one of its reporters was blocked by “a bodyguard” in an attempt to ask Wos a question. And departmental employees were told to call police if activists who were bringing petitions to the Dix campus – where DHHS offices are located – stopped any employees or entered any of the department’s public buildings.

At NC Health News, we have had most media requests denied or unanswered since we ran a story in May that painted Wos in an unflattering light. We have resorted to making most requests in the form of open records requests with legal language that essentially compels the department to answer or face the prospect of litigation.

You can read Hoban’s editorial in its entirety here [3], where she talks about the risk to public health that broken communication lines can cause.

I’ve experience similar difficulties in my role as a reporter with N.C. Policy Watch. Since Diaz, the agency’s communication director, came to the agency this spring, I’ve left numerous messages and sent emails asking for information, seeking clarification or posing questions about various DHHS programs. And I’ve never heard back.

(If Diaz’s name sounds familiar, that’s likely because the 24-year-old former McCrory campaign workers’ salary of $85,000 [4] and April bonus of $23,000 has been a hugely contentious issue in the state as of late.)

Infographic from N.C. DHHS of 2013 successes. [5]

Infographic from N.C. DHHS of 2013 successes.

Take the recent infographic of DHHS successes [6] (on the right) sent out Sept. 11 to reporters around the state. I asked that day for the back-up information and data used to create the graphic. I have yet to receive any type of response.

Making it harder to report on the public agency is DHHS’ policy that all questions from media must go through Diaz and the communications office, according to this May 27 memorandum [7] issued at the department.

Public records requests, which the agency is statutorily required to comply with, have been the primary way to get information out of the $17 billion state agency, the largest in North Carolina government.

Hoban references in her piece reporters being blocked from asking Wos questions by a bodyguard or security officers, including an Aug. 15 experience [8] an N&O reporter had at a Raleigh speaking engagement.

A cabinet secretary with assigned security detail is something that doesn’t appear to have any precedence in North Carolina, so I asked for clarification about the situation, to see if Wos actually had a bodyguard or if there was an explanation.

Was it a DHHS staffer acting in that capacity? Or an employee that Wos has hired herself?

Of course, it’s hardly the most pressing public health matter in the state but it still holds public interest considering the mounting questions about how DHHS is being managed.

I emailed questions on Aug. 20 to Diaz and Julie Henry, another DHHS spokesperson, (click here [9] to read the email). I never received a response.

An accompanying public records request for any and all documents related to the “security needs, transportation or bodyguards” used by Wos at public events was answered, however, on Aug. 21 by a DHHS attorney. The response? “There are no records responsive to your request.”

So, it appears the question of whether or not public funds were used to keep reporters away from Wos will remain unanswered. If I do happen to hear back, I will, of course, update this post with the new information.