Gather ’round, children, and let me tell you a story about a mysterious crusader who stepped up to speak out against a great evil in the land, then, as quickly as he came, disappeared into the mists of legend, where his name will forevermore haunt the lips of humble citizens whenever injustice raises its ugly head.
I speak of Randy Bovitch, one of that strange breed of individual known as “the tipster,” a man or woman of principle and courage — well, kinda-sorta — who contacts media outlets with hot tips for sensational stories. These unsung heroes wish to remain behind the scenes, cloaked in shadow and secrecy, for they crave not accolades or credit for their deeds…which is another way of saying they’re scared that their pot-stirring is going to blow up in their face.
If you work in the news game long enough, you eventually encounter these people, readers who (claim to have) heard something that they think is newsworthy, but who don’t want to stick their necks out themselves for fear of repercussions or reprisal.
In some cases, that concern is perfectly reasonable; whistle-blowers often experience first-hand the old axiom “no good deed goes unpunished.” In other cases — such as in the tale I am about to tell you, o reader — the tipster is, to put it very bluntly, a coward. They have an axe to grind but they want a hatchet man to do the dirty work for them.
Such is the case with “Randy Bovitch,” who entered my journalistic life on Tuesday, following my return from a very lovely Christmas out-of-state.
But first we need to backtrack a little (and here is where I start omitting certain names in the interest of sensitivity to certain parties, including those who, frankly, don’t necessarily deserve it…but hey, I’m a thoughtful guy). Last week a self-professed admirer of Barnstable County government raised questions about allegedly missing video footage from a recent Assembly of Delegates meeting — specifically footage of the Assembly Speaker making remarks about the Admirer (henceforth capitalized for your convenience).
The Admirer accused the Videographer for those meetings of deliberately editing out the Assembly Speaker’s remarks, but the Videographer maintains that the video’s timecode on the master recording is uninterrupted — hence, no editing.
Let the series of not-so-coincidental coincidences begin.
On Christmas Eve, while I was away, one Randy Bovitch sends an e-mail to me (and several other recipients) requesting that I look into an alleged “tax cheat/tax dodger” in the form of the Videographer. Randy Bovitch claims that the Videographer is in arrears with his taxes to the tune of $27,000 and change — and that as a contractor to a government entity, the Videographer is A) drawing a paycheck from tax revenue and B) legally required to divulge all tax issues as part of his contract with the county.
The Videographer was also recently named to a minor board attached to a large municipal entity, where he has a say in how — note the theme here — taxpayer money is spent on an arts project.
Twelve hours later, I receive a second e-mail from Randy Bovitch, containing extremely detailed personal and financial information about the Videographer. A quick traipse through the Registry of Deeds database confirms that the tax information is factually accurate, and a quick call to a Top County Official verifies that yes, contractors are required to sign a legal document confirming they are in compliance with all local, state, and federal tax laws.
At this point, it’s looking like there might indeed be a story of some sort here, and yet something about this is making my Spider-Sense tingle (which I mean metaphorically; despite my most fervent hopes and best efforts, I have yet to receive super-powers through the bite of a radioactive spider…but one day…)
So I turn to the mighty Google and run a search for “Randy Bovitch” and find…absolutely nothing.
Nothing. On Google.
I try a few variant spellings, and still nothing.
I try a few online phone directories. Yet still nothing.*
I turn to the phone book. After my amazement that someone still prints actual phone books dies down, I look inside and find yet still more nothing again.
Enterprise archives? Nothing on a pogo stick. Voter rolls? Nothing with a cherry on top. Facebook? Industrial strength nothing.
(Meanwhile, the Enterprise receives a letter to the editor from a Writer effusively praising the Admirer for bringing a particular issue to the attention of the county government. A fellow Enterprise reporter informs me that the Writer, as it turns out, shares the same residential address as the Admirer…which is because she’s his mother.)
I write back to Randy Bovitch — only now becoming aware that he shares the same initials as the Admirer — to ask what his stake in this issue is and what he hopes to achieve by outing the Videographer’s tax issues. I also ask for some clue as to who he really is, citing my distaste for anonymous sources.
Randy Bovitch avoids providing me with any further details about his identity, allegedly because he fears “potential repercussions,” though he does not specify from who or what sort of repercussions he might face. Mind you, I informed him quite clearly that I planned to cite him by name as a source. His response to this was, and this is verbatim, “Okay, what you said is fine, thank you.” If there were concerns of reprisal, why did he not ask me to keep his name confidential?
He goes on to state he was simply doing research for a “third party” — a third party he insists is not the Admirer (more on that later). As for his stake in the matter, he expresses apathy, stating it is “no big deal on my end” if a story does not materialize out of what he’s provided me.
At this point, I give the Videographer a shout. He readily acknowledges the tax issues and says he is addressing them, to the satisfaction of any legal requirements on his part as a government contractor. So that wraps up that thread of this wacky tapestry.
Then, a source who I won’t identify by even a pseudonym — who I do know for a fact is a real person, and who gave me this tidbit with no veil of anonymity in place — drops a not entirely surprising bombshell: “I guarantee you that Randy Bovtich is [the Admirer].”
I smell blood in the water. Smells tangy.
The next e-mail goes out to the Admirer and Randy Bovitch, asking them point-blank if they are one in the same. The Admirer does not respond, but Randy Bovitch does. “Who?” he says. “Now you are starting to mix unrelated issues,” he says with an air of (inferred) accusation.
Then he goes for the guilt trip. “The next time that I come across something that seems a bit out of sorts durng my research, I think that I will just leave it be,” he says. “It is not worth the effort of trying to do the right thing. ”
That’s right, leave your poor informant here to die his death of cold…
In what proves to be my last e-mail to Randy Bovitch, I lay it all out: my doubts about his true identity and his actual motives, my evidence to support my theory, everything that doesn’t make sense about this whole mess.
Randy Bovitch’s response: “This is too complicated for me, just forget it. I have work to do.”
And then his GMail address vanishes. Gone. Deleted.
This morning, the story takes an unexpected twist when a Completely Random Stranger sends me an e-mail containing a link to a rambling blog post by a known Rabble-Rouser about…
(Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.)
The Videographer’s tax issues.
Surprisingly, the diatribe is all about the Videographer’s seat on the aforementioned arts board and how a “tax cheat” gets to decide how to spend taxpayer money.
Perhaps not surprisingly is that the name attached to the e-mail does not show up anywhere on Google or in the phone book and the e-mail account was deleted after the message was sent!
The word “conspiracy” gets thrown around lightly these days, but I can think of no more fitting description for this absurd adventure. I cannot dismiss it as a string of coincidences. Something was definitely afoot here, and someone tried to suck me into the middle of it under the guise of a diligent citizen trying to bring alleged wrongdoing to light.
At this point you’re probably wondering, Mike, what the hell was the point of all this? What’s the take-away here? What’s the moral of the story?
I guess the first take-away is that some people are not quite as clever as they think they are.
But I’ll pitch this as a cautionary tale for new reporters or for anyone interested in entering the field of journalism. There are people out there who have no qualms about trying to manipulate reporters and turn them into their personal character assassins, people who lack the courage to make their accusations personally and capitalize on the anonymity the Internet so easily provides them. Don’t let yourself be used like that.
There is a place in journalism for anonymous sources and there always will be, but that does not mean accepting what the man in the shadows says at face value, and it does not mean assuming that the motives are purely benevolent. They often aren’t.
Randy Bovitch, where ever and whoever you are, take some measure of pride in knowing that you will live on as an object lesson in how not to get taken for a ride. At least, in that regard, you served some useful purpose.
* EDIT: I did find out that there are only 16 known Bovitches in the United States, according to one online phone directory, and none of them live in the New England area. Not a one.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.