Trespassing case drew ire, opinions; As reporting tactics became focus, officials wrestled with what to do about Valley News story
FARGO — On the afternoon of Dec. 11, Mellaney Moore visited elementary schools in West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead, Minn. In each of the three buildings, the 23-year-old TV reporter walked the halls with a hidden camera rolling.
Her intention was to expose gaps in school security, but in the days and weeks after her story aired on Valley News Live, a local consortium of two TV stations, the question of whether she would face criminal charges became the bigger story.
During her unannounced strolls through the schools, Moore didn’t stop at the main office to register as a guest. Signs at the three schools caution that entering without permission is a misdemeanor offense.Among authorities, there was consensus that the law had been broken and anger about the reporting tactics. But as dozens of emails obtained by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead through open-record requests show, officials wrestled with the decision even as they aimed to keep a unified front — meeting on at least two occasions to make sure they were on the same page.
“I have spent more time thinking about this misdemeanor than on some felonies,” Clay County (Minn.) Attorney Brian Melton wrote in an email to Moorhead police.
After the story aired, police and school officials began exchanging a flurry of emails about the prospect of criminal charges.
“My initial thought is to not give this news story and (its) generators any more attention (than) it or they deserve. That’s not to suggest that we do nothing, but I’m not interested in handing them another story that simply makes us look spiteful,” Fargo police Chief Keith Ternes wrote.
In other emails, officials said Ternes thought Cass County prosecutors should send the TV station a letter warning that similar incidents in the future would result in prosecution.
West Fargo police Chief Arland Rasmussen wrote that the decision to prosecute Moore would be left up to administrators at West Fargo Public Schools because no police officer was assigned to the school Moore visited. “However, sure is evident they broke the law!” Rasmussen wrote.
West Fargo superintendent David Flowers supported filing a police report and giving the TV station an official notice that the law had been violated.
Moorhead’s deputy police chief, Shannon Monroe, wrote that an apology or correction would be the least his department would expect from the TV station.
“We are not bent on charges by any means, however putting out to the world an obvious violation of MN law cannot be simply ignored,” he wrote.
The day after the story first aired, Jeff Schatz, superintendent of Fargo Public Schools, told The Forum that Moore’s disregard of the rules concerned him, but it was unlikely his district would file a complaint, as he was not sure what the purpose would be.
Lowell Wolff, a former district spokesman and administrator, read the comments by Schatz and wrote him an email expressing disappointment.
“The public just heard you don’t care enough about this to act. This is especially true when you have the security camera files to prove your case,” wrote Wolff, who has expertise in school safety.
Wolff believed this was a chance for the three school districts to stand together to make a strong statement.
“Failure to act sends the message that the media is above the law and it legitimizes their unprofessional tactics,” he wrote.
Whether Wolff’s email, which was circulated to several other officials, had an influence is unclear. But the next day, after Schatz reviewed school surveillance video, Fargo police opened an investigation.
The video that Schatz watched showed Moore speaking with a school employee and asking for directions to the main office. West Fargo police learned a similar encounter had occurred at the school there, according to a police report.
That report also mentions that earlier in 2013, when Moore was working on another story, a police officer had asked her to leave West Fargo High School. After the officer made the request, Moore kept trying to interview students on the campus, the report said.
“It appears that Ms. Moore does know she is not supposed to be on school grounds even after being told to leave,” the report stated.
Evident in the emails of officials was the ire that Moore’s story ignited.
“In the spirit of playing ‘gotcha’ the TV station did a couple of things that are unfortunate. They advertised to anyone with mal intent that schools are vulnerable, and here’s how you take advantage of the vulnerability if you’d like to hurt children,” Flowers wrote.
Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney directed his criticism at Moore’s boss, news director Ike Walker. Laney said Walker “is not from here and doesn’t get the culture and the relationships. He is about scandalizing news stories for effect, not for content or truth. This last one is a perfect example,” the sheriff wrote.
Along with frustration was recognition that, in light of Moore’s story, school security should be scrutinized. Lynne Kovash, superintendent of Moorhead Public Schools, wrote that she had asked her staff and school resource officers to review security procedures, something that had not been done in a few years.
“It is wise not to ignore a possible lesson from this even if the messenger is seriously flawed,” Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger wrote in response to Kovash.
But Ebinger also had strong words about the case that he shared with other Moorhead officials.
“I am not sure anything would be accomplished by prosecuting a clueless dupe and providing KVLY with further attention to this sensationalize(d) mess of a report,” Ebinger wrote in an email, referring to the call letters of one of the two Valley News Live stations.
In an interview Thursday, Ebinger said he regretted calling Moore a “clueless dupe” and added that he did not think she acted maliciously. However, the chief described her story as ineffective in addressing the complex issue of school security. He noted that schools are public buildings that can’t simply be fortified like jails.
“They have to be accessible to parents,” he said of schools. “They have to be accessible and welcoming to students.”
Early on, Walker came to Moore’s defense, saying the station stood behind the reporter and her story.
He explained publicly that the story grew out of a call from a concerned mother, who is also an employee of the Fargo School District. The woman had seen a report on the “Today” show that exposed holes in security at schools, and she wanted Valley News Live to do the same locally. Walker told The Forum the station had not been aware of the laws that prohibit access to schools in the area.
“In response to the story two of the three school districts have admitted to security failures within their schools,” Walker wrote in a letter posted on the station’s website Dec. 15. “But now the schools, police and other media outlets want to make the story about whether or not Moore violated the law instead of focusing on the real issue … why someone was able to walk into and around a school in the first place.”
As Moorhead police investigated the case, detectives made several attempts to interview Moore. Walker told police she would agree to an interview, but that a TV camera would be in the room. This was not acceptable to police, according to an investigation report.
After that, Moorhead police told Moore they weren’t interested in requesting an interview through Walker anymore and requested an interview with her directly.
Moore eventually retained an attorney and was advised not to speak with police, the report said.
With the investigations underway, police chiefs in Moorhead, Fargo and West Fargo arranged to meet for lunch Dec. 16 at King House in downtown Fargo with other law enforcement officials. Over Chinese food, they discussed the case and agreed to keep each other updated on their department’s respective investigations.
After Christmas, Rasmussen, the West Fargo chief, sent an email inviting police, prosecutors and school officials to a Jan. 7 meeting at the Cass County States Attorney’s Office. The purpose was to voice observations and concerns about “what has become known as the KVLY incident,” Rasmussen wrote.
“We may not agree on prosecuting or not prosecuting but at least we understand where each other stand. It is my goal to have city prosecutors as well as both Cass and Clay Co. States’ Attorneys at the meeting. (It is still debatable which prosecutor, if any, may handle each case),” he wrote.
The case ultimately fell to city prosecutors in Fargo and West Fargo, jurisdictions that have city ordinances against trespassing in schools. In Moorhead, Clay County Attorney Brian Melton handled it. The prosecutors eventually entered into negotiations with Moore, Walker and KVLY general manager Jim Wareham to resolve the matter.
On Jan. 8, Mike Reitan, the assistant West Fargo police chief, sent an email to West Fargo school and police officials reporting that the city’s prosecutor, Sara Monson, had received a call from Moore’s attorney, Lisa Borgen. Borgen, a former district court judge and prosecutor in Clay County, made a case that her client was “a good employee doing as she was told” and said that KVLY may consider apologizing to the school, the email stated.
In the end, KVLY was not asked to make an apology. It reached identical settlements with the three school districts, allowing Moore to avoid prosecution.
Included in the settlements are stipulations that Moore will not report on any school-related stories for 90 days. The agreement also bars school and Valley News Live officials from commenting publicly on the Dec. 11 report.
A couple of the prosecutors sent emails explaining how they decided not to charge Moore.
“In reviewing the report it appears the KVLY station manager, Garland (Ike) Walker directed Ms. Moore to enter the school,” Fargo’s assistant city attorney, Jason Loos, wrote to Moore’s attorney. “Unfortunately we could not obtain a conviction against Mr. Walker for his conduct. While I think we could get a conviction against Ms. Moore, the fact she was acting on behalf of her supervisor coupled with the fact the School District is not looking to prosecute have caused me to use prosecutorial discretion and decline charging Ms. Moore.”
Melton also put blame on Walker.
“I don’t like the way KVLY does business or the fact that they sent their reporter out to break the law, with that said, I don’t think we gain anything at this point by going after her when it is largely her bosses who are at fault,” Melton said in an email to Moorhead police Chief Ebinger and Deputy Chief Monroe.
Melton’s email went on to say Moorhead’s superintendent had concerns about the school district “looking vindictive or looking like they were the only ones that wanted a prosecution of Mellaney Moore,” concerns he shared.
In a reply to Melton, Ebinger said he saw wisdom in reaching a settlement with the TV station.
“The agreement in which KVLY agrees to obey the law in producing their stories in the future is probably more useful than any conviction we could have obtained in this matter,” Ebinger wrote. “My biggest concern is that we lower the bar for ethical journalism in our region and that we place journalists who have standards at a competitive disadvantage in a competitive market.”