A Colorado journalist’s secret: While covering the state Capitol, he was ‘smoking crack daily’

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Image by Kaheem Sands for Creative Commons on Flickr

In June, I shared a story about a KUSA 9News TV reporter in Denver who went on camera to talk about his personal struggle with mental health for the first time. Now, another journalist in Colorado is going public about his own demons and how he dealt with them. Vic Vela, a weekend host and reporter for Colorado Public Radio, sat down with Joe Hanel of the Colorado Health Institute for an episode of Hanel’s podcast, The Checkup. On the show, Vela opened up about a secret he kept from his colleagues in the press corps as he covered the Capitol just a few years ago when he was working for a network of community newspapers.

“I was really disguising myself and really putting up appearances … while I’m maintaining a daily drug habit— in my case it was cocaine,” Vela, 41, said on the podcast. “First powder cocaine, and then as things really got worse, then I started smoking crack. And that was not just a daily beast, it was an hourly beast that I had to feed.”

Here’s one exchange between Vela and Hanel, who worked together at the Statehouse in 2013. Hanel didn’t know at the time about Vela’s addiction as they covered marathon legislative hearings under the gold dome, but he said Vela did have a reputation of ghosting:

Vela: “When you’re a reporter with a drug habit like I was, yeah, I would disappear … I would just go sneak into my car and go out into an alley and get high because that’s what I had to do.”

Hanel: “And then come back and go to a press conference with the speaker of the House.”

Vela: “Yeah. No one knew. No one knew. I think everyone dismissed it as, you know, that’s just Vic, that’s just what he does. But — and then I would come in and tell a few jokes, you know, anything to take any sort of attention away from what was really happening.”

On the podcast, which seeks to put a spotlight on addiction and recovery, Vela refers to himself as a onetime functioning addict who could snort his fix and then put on a tie and interview the governor without anyone being the wiser. But “everything was not fine,” he said. “In reality my whole world was just crashing down around me. I was going bankrupt. In fact, I officially went bankrupt.” Cocaine, he said, is expensive.

Another exchange:

Hanel: So, we kind of drifted apart after we both left the Capitol … how did you start to recover and who helped you out and what helped you out?

Vela: When you left the Capitol I was still there for another year, and by that time I had been smoking crack daily. It got to the point where I couldn’t physically snort cocaine anymore because I wrecked my nose and so I had to do drugs a different way. So I would smoke it, and when I started doing that — smoking crack is a heavy thing to do … it is not something you’re supposed to do … my moods increasingly got irritable, I was living with great paranoia every single day.

The reporter painted a picture of himself after a three-day bender, pacing in a room and muttering to himself with the blinds closed. “I’m a journalist covering important legislative matters. I had to have that mask of, you know, sanity I guess, keeping up appearances,” he said. “And I had to find out how to get money for my next fix … every day was damage control.” What changed for Vela wasn’t some cinematic rock-bottom experience of waking up in a jail cell or watching a loved one overdose. He was just tired of being tired. He had been through multiple failed attempts at sobriety, including a 28-day rehab stint that didn’t stick. But he kept it up and with the help of a sponsor, he eventually got the help he needed. He’s been sober since late January 2015, and he says the station where he works — the only sober job he’s had as a professional journalist — is super supportive.

But now that Vela is a well-known and successful radio journalist, Hanel suggested sharing his story might be risky. So why open up? “Because people need to hear from people like me,” Vela said. “I think stigma is a killer. The more we stigmatize people in addiction the less inclined they are to get help.” (You can listen to the whole 17-minute episode here, and check out the rest of The Checkup podcast by The Colorado Health Institute here.)

I caught up with Vela over the phone to ask how the reception has been to the podcast, and he said it’s not the first time he’s told his story publicly. He speaks at rehab centers and he’ll be giving a talk at the Colorado Health Institute’s annual conference in December. “I’m pretty much an open book,” he said. “In recovery, I learned to shine a light on these problems to help people — and to hold myself accountable.”

I also had another question that I felt a little bad asking. But I was curious. Covering a legislature can be a demanding, speedy, high-metabolism job. Did the drugs ever help? He said maybe in the early stages of addiction uppers could be good for productivity and meeting deadlines. He had also written while on hallucinogens like LSD or magic mushrooms. And sure, he said, there might be some truth about certain chemicals helping with creativity, but drugs could just as easily lead to blown deadlines, too. And when he looks back at what he wrote then versus what he’s producing now, he sees a much better product.

“I was really productive when I was getting high in those early years — there was a time when I was able to pull that off,” Vela said. “But as the addiction progressed and as I got older, and as I became more isolated in my using, that wasn’t the case.”

‘Orphan county’ followup

Plenty will be written about what the Nov. 6 midterm elections in Colorado, which swept Democrats into office up and down the ballot and surged deep into the state’s key counties, will mean on the media front. How, for instance, will a new attorney general handle a response to The Colorado Independent’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case about open records, if at all? Where will former Colorado politics reporter Lynn Bartels go if the incoming secretary of state seeks new spokesblood? Will our next governor be open and transparent to the public?

Here’s one thing we know: A new statewide politician is already looking at an issue I’ve highlighted often in this newsletter. Incoming Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser, who worked on telecommunications issues while at the U.S. Department of Justice, is promising to support La Plata County in its fight to bring Denver TV news to southwest Colorado.

From The Durango Herald:

In an interview Wednesday, Weiser said he stands in support of La Plata County’s petition to the Federal Communications Commission to allow satellite carriers to transmit Denver stations to county residents. Montezuma and La Plata counties, which are both “orphan counties,” meaning they receive New Mexico broadcasting, have been fighting for at least two decades to receive Colorado programming. Many residents say they would prefer to receive news and advertisements from Colorado. Residents grow especially upset during elections when they are bombarded by commercials for issues and candidates in New Mexico and miss out on information being shared across Colorado. The furor grows even louder during the football season, when inevitably, at least once a year, Albuquerque stations decide to show alternative programming instead of a Denver Broncos game.

Once he takes office, Weiser told the paper he’ll make the case for why La Plata and Montezuma counties should be able to get news beamed in from Denver instead of New Mexico. Weiser also penned a column for the newspaper, headlined “I’ll fight for your in-state TV.” So, how is he going to do that, exactly?

From his column:

Unfortunately, our outgoing attorney general – unlike both U.S. senators and the local congressman – has failed to join with the county commission in this petition for in-state programming. … As our next attorney general, I will join in support of the La Plata County Commission’s case and bring the full weight of the AG’s office behind the county’s request.

And we’ll be sure to keep an eye on how that goes.

Speaking of La Plata, in Durango, a public school official’s spat with a local paper isn’t going well

Write this over and over on the chalkboard until recess: I will clearly explain to the press what happened so this doesn’t become one giant mess for everyone. One might consider such an exercise for a public school superintendent in Durango who wound up in a tussle with his local newspaper, The Durango Herald.

The background: After hearing an incident crackle across the newsroom police scanner and filing an open records request about it, the paper got ahold of audio from a 911 call in which a woman who says she is an employee of Needham Elementary claims the school district’s spokeswoman, whom she says is banned from the school, had shown up at the school. Later, a dispatcher says the spokeswoman could “(possibly) be armed if she returns back,” the paper reported. So, probably worth a call from a reporter to the school and district leadership to find out what happened, right? When the paper reached out, though, the school’s principal and the district’s superintendent both were not helpful. “I have no knowledge of such an incident,” the principal told the paper. The superintendent, Dan Snowberger, said the spokeswoman wasn’t banned from the school at all, and he fired off a testy letter about the paper’s approach to the story.

Here’s part of it, per the Herald:

“I have fully responded to your questions and your CORA request to the district is being dealt with by our Board Clerk/Records custodian. Since no records of this incident exist and that will be provided within the 72 hour period permitted by law, I don’t know what else to say. The incident you are referring to is foreign to all you claim to be involved. We have fully answered all questions regarding this matter. Sadly, you seem to have your story that you wish our answers to conform with. Is that good journalism? Do you live in a world lined with conspiracy theories.

Your attempt to slander an individual without evidence is sad and despicable. The fact that your senior staff and leadership are permitting this is a negative reflection on the Durango Herald as an institution. I will not be threatened into providing false information about an incident to feed your desired story. The facts are clear. There is no police incident report which means that despite police being sent to Needham according to the call log you have provided, no incident had taken place. [The spokeswoman] is our Public Information Officer and has no restrictions on any campus. [The school principal] can also not feed your alleged incident with facts that are not truthful. If that warrants space in your paper, then it is a sad day in Durango that the other community issues that impact citizens on a daily basis are being ignored.

How many other false calls do you print a story about? They occur on a daily basis where police officers are dispatched and arrive to find nothing of the sort. It is clear you personally intend to slander [the spokeswoman] and that is beyond the scope of Freedom of the Press. Morals and principles would guide someone otherwise.

The superintendent also asked for a meeting with the newspaper’s publisher so he could file what he called a “formal complaint” for “tactics in trying to develop a false story.”

In an online article, the Herald published email correspondence between the reporter and the superintendent, allowing readers to judge for themselves how the paper approached its piece. The paper also wrote: “The Herald filed a Colorado Open Records Act request on Nov. 9, seeking any records involving [the spokeswoman’s] ban from Needham.” The district is pushing back, the paper reports, and the paper’s lawyer is on the case.

Bottom line here: A public figure who oversees a school system believes the local newspaper is running with an incorrect version of events, but doesn’t seem to want to explain to the paper why. The Herald’s editorial board pretty much summed it up: “Was it nothing? If so, why is Snowberger not eager to clear it up?”

Instead of doing so with the newspaper, Snowberger and the school principal sent separate letters to parents, the Herald reports this week. The one from the superintendent carries quite an opener: “For those of you that partake in local media,” it reads, “I wanted to provide a brief response.” And he does, but without explaining what actually happened that led to the 911 call, that led to a police response, which crackled across a public scanner and led a reporter to rightly ask, well, what happened? Instead, the superintendent talks about protecting the confidentiality of parents “whether employee or not” and accuses local media of sensationalism. In reporting on the letters, the Herald quotes the school board president saying to the paper, “You weren’t given a coherent response … And we’re looking into how we can help you with that.” It also quotes a local prosecutor and school district parent dunking on the super and defending the paper. The Herald’s questioning “never merited such an unprofessional attack to the point at which you accuse them of being conspirators, and threaten to cut them off from access to the District,” he said.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado
Above-the-fold headline in The Summit Daily News: “Climate change creating lasting damage.” The Greeley Tribune fronted a story by the nonprofit Aspen Journalism about a costly plan to store water from the South Platte RiverThe Grand Junction Daily reported on  the financial troubles of an oil-and-gas companyThe Longmont Times-Call ran a piece about how cannabinoids show promise for cancer patientsThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered the Rocky Mountain Train ShowThe Steamboat Pilot carried the story of a local bear that broke into five cars in three days (news to me: “Subaru cars are susceptible to bear break-ins because the animals can slip their paws behind the door handles.”) The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on a sprawling tent city rising in the shadow of downtownThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled the end of a local Christmas tree farmThe Boulder Daily Camera had a story about the City of Longmont’s consideration of an outdoor smoking banVail Daily reported on snow stranding travelersThe Durango Herald covered local residents’ concerns about living near a homeless campThe Denver Post fronted a takeout on how Colorado could become “Aerospace Alley.”

A Colorado judge brought down the hammer on Paonia for a ‘reverse CORA’

Score one for the little guy.

An alarming trend on the U.S. press-freedom front has been use of the so-called reverse FOI, or, in Colorado, the “reverse CORA”: The practice of a government suing someone who puts in a request for public records through the Freedom of Information Act or the Colorado Open Records Act. I documented one particularly remarkable incident in Montana a couple years ago, but Colorado isn’t immune. “It happened to 9NEWS in 2016, when two unions unsuccessfully tried to block the release of complaints and disciplinary actions against public school bus drivers,” reports Jeff Roberts at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. In another case that year, the town of Basalt sued a resident who requested text messages exchanged between the mayor and town clerk. But this month, Delta District Court Judge Steven Schultz “ruled that the town of Paonia improperly invoked CORA’s safe harbor clause in a lawsuit against Bill Brunner, a former town trustee who had requested numerous records in 2017,” Roberts writes.

From the CFOIC blog:

An obscure provision in the Colorado Open Records Act allows a government records custodian to initiate legal action against a requester if he or she is unable, in good faith, to determine whether documents are exempt from disclosure. Under CORA’s safe harbor clause, a requester cannot recover court costs and attorney fees even if a judge ultimately finds that the records should have been released. But what if a government entity sues a requester without making that good faith effort?

In the case of Brunner and Paonia, the post goes on, “Not only should the town have turned the records over to Brunner, Judge Steven Schultz wrote, he is entitled to be reimbursed for his legal costs and attorney fees because Paonia officials ‘failed to exercise reasonable diligence or reasonable inquiry’ before going ahead with the suit.”

Brunner had asked the town for emails and documents related to a town employee who was injured on the job and filed a complaint against Paonia, Roberts writes, but the town denied the requests and later filed a safe harbor suit “claiming that it couldn’t ‘in good faith’ determine its obligation to turn over the records. The town also argued that releasing the documents would cause ‘substantial injury to the public interest.'”

More from Roberts at CFOIC:

But Judge Schultz found that most of the records requested by Brunner did not contain any medical or health information and that brief references to painkillers in an investigator’s report easily could have been redacted in order to release the document. Paonia ignored “one of the primary tenets in interpreting CORA exceptions – that they must be construed narrowly, rather than broadly,” Schultz wrote.

Brunner is happy with the ruling, he told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, but he worries about governments in Colorado being able to use the state’s safe harbor provision in its open records laws as “a tactic to avoid liability.” You can read the judge’s ruling here.

Departing Denver Post digital producer: ‘chaos reigned daily’

It’s been a while since a Denver Post journalist kicked off a Twitter thread with an announcement of “some personal news.” Around last spring we pretty much knew what the following tweetstorm would entail. In one of those word clouds, “hedge fund” might be the largest. This week, Adrian Crawford, who came on last April as the paper’s morning digital producer, said on social media his last day at The Denver Post would be Friday, and “perhaps my last day in journalism as well.”

Crawford also penned a post on his personal blog on the way out. From the item:

I wrote on April 5 of this year that the newsroom suffered personnel cuts in November of 2017, an event that had me ready to seek out a new opportunity when my work anniversary rolled around mere days after that post. What I didn’t mention in that dispatch for various reasons was that, around three weeks prior, the powers that be announced there would be even more layoffs. Out of nowhere, 30 staff would lose their jobs, and in the aftermath even more would take their fates into their own hands and leave for greener, hopefully more stable, pastures. As you might imagine, morale was through the floor and nobody knew what would happen next. We ended up limping through the following months, rebuilding teams and trying to regain traction and direction, but chaos reigned daily. All in all it’s been the toughest few months of my professional life, which began in 2007 as a fresh-faced 22-year-old joining a national online news desk based in my hometown — the luckiest gig in journalism.

…for the first time in my career I watched, stunned, as the nightmare you hear about every organization at one point or another came true. It’s one of those “it couldn’t happen here” things, until it absolutely does. National news outlets ran photos of my coworkers’ devastation (as I sat in the background, deeply unimpressed) at the knowledge that they may soon lose their jobs.

The hurt and uncertainty were as palpable as the thrice-weekly hangovers from that point on. Compounding the misery was the news cycle, which has become more and more hellish over the past couple of years, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know what I’m getting at here. It didn’t take me long to realize that the only way to navigate around the heaviness of the news content I was reading, combined with a third straight year of operating on minimal sleep and the storm clouds hanging over the newsroom, was to find a new opportunity in another industry.

So he did.

A Gazette paper carrier is homeless after a fire

As a former paperboy who slung the Times Union onto doorsteps of the Albany, N.Y., suburbs in the early 1990s, I always appreciate when The Gazette in Colorado Springs highlights the lives of those who physically help deliver the news. Last year the paper interviewed subscribers along the route of a 56-year-old paper carrier who died, quoting one of them saying, “He did a job that, I’ll bet you, 90 percent of the high school students with a driver’s license would think beneath them, and he did that job with so much pride and was so careful, always being respectful of the job and of his customers.”

This time, The Gazette profiled one of its carriers, now homeless, who has been delivering the paper for decades. “Eric Knapp doesn’t have much left, except his girlfriend and two dogs,” the paper reported. “Nearly everything else burned when the recreational vehicle they were living in caught fire last week.”

More from The Gazette:

Just when 54-year-old Knapp, who’s been a Gazette newspaper carrier since he was 11 years old, was ready to hang up his walking shoes and travel around with his partner of 16 years, fate stepped in and altered the plans. The pair own the clothes on their back, and that’s about it. They’re homeless and staying temporarily with another Gazette carrier.
“Despite the loss of his home,” the story goes on, “Knapp hasn’t missed a day of work.”
*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE. Photo by Kaheem Sands for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

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