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"Inadvertent Removal"

Hubbub over Observer reporter and a city file

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It's a mystery, all right. Some members of the Charlotte City Council want to know how a personal file belonging to an assistant Charlotte city manager wound up on a reporter's desk at the Charlotte Observer.At Monday's meeting, indignant council member James Mitchell asked city staff to prepare a report on the situation. According to the report, after an August meeting between Observer reporter Michelle Crouch and a member of city staff in Assistant City Manager Vi Lyles' office, Lyles' assistant Wanda Braswell noticed that a file labeled "Vi's EMAIL," containing a few weeks' worth of Lyles' work-related email was missing.

According to the report, when Braswell tracked the reporter down at the Observer, Crouch told her she had accidentally picked it up during the meeting.

After a series of at least three meetings (your tax dollars at work) including City Attorney Mac McCarley, the city's Corporate Communications Director Julie Hill, the Observer's editor and managing editor and Crouch, an official version of the crime began to emerge.

According to the report, Crouch's explanation was that she had inadvertently picked up the file when she left the meeting and didn't know she had it. Sometime later that day she saw the file on her desk and thought another reporter had put the file there. Crouch admitted looking at the material in the file but explained that she believed another reporter had properly obtained it and left it on her desk for her to read. Crouch denied intentionally taking the file. Later, after Crouch returned to covering the city beat after a month-long assignment covering drought and water issues, Crouch called a handful of the city's management employees and another rash of individual meetings occurred. What they had left to discuss at this point is unclear.

Creative Loafing became interested in the story after former Black Political Caucus Chairman Eric Douglas and another political crony of council member Mitchell's began calling a CL reporter at home last week, insisting she immediately get in touch with Mitchell, who was supposedly outraged about the incident and trying without success to get in touch with her. Mitchell's concern, his friends said, was that the Observer was going to "cover this up" if CL didn't write something about it and would "get away with it." When CL attempted to return Mitchell's call, he said he really wanted to talk to us and would call back in five minutes. He never called back. Four days and over a dozen calls to Mitchell later, CL's calls had still gone unanswered and unreturned by Mitchell. Although Mitchell's exasperated friends called the CL reporter back several times and promised that Mitchell would return her calls or answer the phone when she called, he never did.

Whatever the case, Observer editor Jennie Buckner called the whole thing a "non-event."

"She had no intention of taking the file and didn't use the material in it in any way and returned it promptly upon realizing she had it," Buckner said. "We all agreed to put it behind us. We have complete faith in Michelle Crouch."

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