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Ben Cunningham: What happened

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Just why a trusted colleague, someone I considered a friend, abandoned a years-long professional relationship and attempted to implicate me in an alleged cover-up, I don’t know and may never learn.

What I do know is what happened, and what was said in the days leading up to that decision. I can also remember clearly the weeks since, ending ultimately in the publication — first by a Montgomery-based website, then by The Anniston Star — of allegations against The Star’s longtime publisher, Brandt Ayers. Eddie Burkhalter wrote the story for Alabama Political Reporter. He’d worked at The Star until mid-November. I’m told his understanding of the events leading up to his departure differ from mine. Here’s what I know.

On Thursday, Nov. 16, Joey Kennedy published a column, mainly on the developing Roy Moore scandal, that also mentioned his wife had been assaulted — spanked — by the publisher of a newspaper she’d worked for in the 1970s. I learned of this that Friday morning, when Eddie Burkhalter asked to speak to me in my office at The Star with the door closed. Eddie explained the column’s contents, and said he’d already confirmed his suspicion — that Kennedy’s wife, Veronica Pike Kennedy, had worked at The Star. That was when I first learned of the allegations that The Star’s longtime publisher, Brandt Ayers, had attacked Mrs. Kennedy and multiple other women. Eddie mentioned (either then, in a later talk Friday or on Tuesday morning) that he’d walked away from a job at The Star once and could afford to do so again.

I agreed with Eddie that we should look into it, and that The Star should publish the story if it checked out. I felt certain that The Star’s editor and publisher, Bob Davis, would agree, and filled him in at the first opportunity later that morning. Eddie had left the newsroom to report a story at the YMCA downtown. I was surprised at Bob’s initial reaction: an instruction to halt work on the story, but felt that in time he’d come to the decision I felt was right: to at least check the allegations out. I’d worked with Bob long enough to have a sense of his journalistic ethics and general character, and been proud to work for him. I believed that he’d agree with me, sooner rather than later. I asked if he was open to future arguments to resume work on the story, and he said he was.

Still, I had to relay to Eddie when he returned later that day Bob’s instruction to stop. Remembering Eddie’s comment about being able to afford to leave, I said I couldn’t afford to do anything so rash because I had a mortgage. (I made this comment either Friday afternoon, or in another conversation Tuesday.) I told Eddie I thought that sort of action was unnecessary, because Bob would eventually change his mind. I asked Eddie to give Bob a week to do so before he did anything that couldn’t be undone. Eddie was unwilling to wait a week, so we settled on the next Wednesday. Eddie agreed not to contact anyone to speak about the allegations, but I told him he was welcome to spend the weekend gathering written material and contact info to be ready to chase the story when we got the OK.

Eddie had the weekend off, and took off Monday, too. When he came in Tuesday morning, he asked me whether anything had changed. I told him no, and reminded him that we’d agreed to wait until Wednesday. That’s when he told me he’d spoken to new sources about the story over the weekend, against his instructions and our agreement. He shared some of what he’d learned, but declined to say much about who he’d spoken with. Our conversation grew heated as I attempted to explain my frustration that he’d violated our agreement. Eddie insisted that he’d publish the story however he could. In the interchange that followed, during which Eddie frequently interrupted me, came the only action I regret in all this: I used the F-word, to which he clearly took offense. “Don’t talk to me like that, Ben,” he said.

He responded in kind. “If you’re going to fire me, just f---ing fire me,” he said. Then he left the newsroom.

I filled Bob in as soon as he got to the office. He agreed with me that at worst, Eddie should be reprimanded for acting directly against his instructions and his agreement with me. I asked Eddie by text message to return to the newsroom to talk at 1 p.m. He asked if we were planning to fire him, and I told him no. He agreed to come in at 1. Bob and I consulted with The Star’s human resources manager. I’d begun drafting notes of my interactions with Eddie on Friday and Tuesday, intending to use them in a letter of reprimand; Bob said that wouldn’t be needed.

At 1, Eddie returned, and he and I went to Bob’s office; the conversation went south quickly. Bob attempted to set the terms of the discussion, which would center solely on Eddie’s insubordination. Eddie interrupted repeatedly, and demanded to know whether he’d be allowed to pursue the story. Bob’s answer to that question was “I can’t say,” meaning he didn’t know. I also attempted to calm Eddie down, and Bob and I at one point both convinced him to return to his seat so we could keep talking. Eddie suggested that Bob and I may have long known about the allegations against Ayers. (Neither of us had.) In the end, Eddie slapped his key card on Bob’s desk and announced his resignation. As he left, I told him he was making a mistake.

Eddie had told me about Kennedy’s column on Friday morning. On his next day in the office, Tuesday, just after 1 p.m., having gone against his word and his instructions, he’d quit.

After Eddie left, Bob and I discussed next steps. I said I still believed we should pursue the story. I said Tim Lockette would be the natural choice for the assignment. Bob agreed to consider it.

That afternoon, without telling Bob, I told Tim about Eddie’s departure and instructed him to do as I’d instructed Eddie: Gather written material and contact info, but refrain from calling anyone until receiving further instructions.

The next day, Wednesday, Bob told me he’d decided we should look into the allegations. I told Tim of Bob’s decision, and he began contacting sources, juggling the assignment with coverage of the allegations against Roy Moore, the Senate election, anything else that came up, and the Christmas holidays. Tim made significant progress over the next few weeks, and I attempted to help him find contact information for women who’d worked as reporters at The Star in 1975. By late December, we still had just one source — Veronica Kennedy — on the record as saying she’d been attacked, and one witness to that attack, Mike Stamler. Tim spoke with other women who described attacks, but they did not want their names published. We agreed that to meet our standards, we should exhaust efforts to get victims on the record with their allegations.

A fresh column from Joey Kennedy was published Dec. 28, this time naming Brandt Ayers as the publisher who’d attacked his wife. Bob said the column was not detailed or credible enough to warrant publishing what we had yet. Still, I told Tim to prepare a draft of what he had, in case Eddie or another reporter published a story before we were ready.

On Friday afternoon, Dec. 29, an email from Eddie arrived — addressed to Bob but copied to Ayers and to me — laying out the allegations from Veronica Kennedy, another source with whom we’d also spoken who didn’t want to be named, and Trisha O’Connor, who described witnessing an encounter in the aftermath of an attack on a fellow reporter. Eddie’s email said he intended to submit his story, at “a state news outlet,” by 6 p.m. Sunday. He asked whether the allegations were true. Not knowing the answer to that question, I did not respond, nor did Bob — we saw it properly as a question for Ayers. Eddie sent me a text message that afternoon asking to confirm receipt of the email; I did not respond.

When I got up on Monday morning, Jan. 1, I saw that Eddie’s story had been published at APR, with a response from Ayers. Tim and Bob had seen it, too. I asked Bob to prepare Ayers for a phone call from Tim; instead, Ayers sent a written response through Bob. We completed work on Tim’s draft and published it, just after 11 a.m. Monday.

Tim then pointed me to another Kennedy column, in which he and Eddie accused The Star of attempting to “shut down” the story. I wrote a column in response  and posted it. I felt it didn’t address all the questions readers might reasonably have, so I began drafting this account during my New Year’s Day evening editing shift. I finished it today, Jan. 2, the same day Bob Davis also published a column covering much of the same material.

Managing Editor Ben Cunningham: 256-235-3541. On Twitter @Cunningham_Star.

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