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Wendy Saltzman's CBS Atlanta News Web Blog

Retaliation by Heating Company to Undercover Investigation

 
This week a heating company I was investigating set up a disparaging website in an attempt to intimidate me after we exposed their questionable business practices. You can watch our heating investigation below. I am so blessed to have a wonderful work family who rallied around me with support and kind words. From my photographer AJ, to my News Director Eric Ludgood, and all of my co-workers. No matter what your opinion about CBS Atlanta News, these folks are truly family, and I am proud to be part of this team. I am not including a link to the website, because it includes some of my personal information… but it’s not hard to find. Thanks to our viewers who sent in their support too. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

Undercover Heating Investigaition Exposes Tactics to Make Money

February 24, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Keeping Public Officials Private

Why do Public Information Officers shield Elected Officials from the Media? It can have two appearances- either they are trying to hide something, on like in the case last week, it can come across as just plain embarrassing.
As a member of the media I was investigating DeKalb County’s decision to inflict pay cuts on lower level employees, while the County’s top brass were immune from those same cuts in pay. I requested 3 interviews with the CEO of DeKalb county that went unanswered when I tracked him down at a public meeting… Here is the video of that encounter…

   I’ll quote here from my colleague Doug Richard’s blog www.liveapartmentfire.com for another perspective:

“Disinformaiton Officer”

“The ambush itself was classic.  Saltzman stepped between Ellis and the door through which he’d intended to escape.  She blocked the door with her shoe, and politely yet firmly asked Ellis the day-old question.

“And Ellis answered.  But as Ellis was answering the question, the PIO was throwing a fit in front of the camera lens — blocking it with her hand, blocking it with her face, blocking it with her hair.  Later on, she blocked it with a piece of cloth.  Ellis’s answer — that state law required that elected officials take no furloughs  — became the audio background for the on-camera tomfoolery of his public information officer.  Oops.

“And who gets the last word on this stuff?  Maybe the TV station.  Maybe the CEO, when he realizes his PIO made him look like a chump.

“But probably not the PIO, whose job is to anonymously facilitate the flow of information.  Not block it with a cloth, or a hand, in front of a rolling camera — thereby hand-delivering an absurd story about government stonewalling, when a timely, honest answer would have served her boss much better.

“The ambush itself was classic.  Saltzman stepped between Ellis and the door through which he’d intended to escape.  She blocked the door with her shoe, and politely yet firmly asked Ellis the day-old question.

“And Ellis answered.  But as Ellis was answering the question, the PIO was throwing a fit in front of the camera lens — blocking it with her hand, blocking it with her face, blocking it with her hair.  Later on, she blocked it with a piece of cloth.  Ellis’s answer — that state law required that elected officials take no furloughs  — became the audio background for the on-camera tomfoolery of his public information officer.  Oops.

“And who gets the last word on this stuff?  Maybe the TV station.  Maybe the CEO, when he realizes his PIO made him look like a chump.

“But probably not the PIO, whose job is to anonymously facilitate the flow of information.  Not block it with a cloth, or a hand, in front of a rolling camera — thereby hand-delivering an absurd story about government stonewalling, when a timely, honest answer would have served her boss much better.

    Here is the video of the story we ran that night… I’m open for your feedback!

February 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Double Dipping

In the last few weeks we’ve been airing several stories about Fulton County Employees Double Dipping.  The series of reports has been met with a myriad of responses- Some people have voiced their anger that employees are allowed to draw two paychecks that citizens taxes are paying for, and others think it is good business sense to re-hire retired workers.

My original investigation was the result of a tip I received from an anonymous source, who was upset that more than a dozen Fulton County Sheriff’s Officers were receiving both a pension and a paycheck.  Here’s how it works— We found in many cases the employees took early retirement from the county.  They retired with a pension (in some cases very lucrative) and county funded health benefits.  Some of those employees then chose to return to their old jobs as soon as 3 to 5 months later, and were pulling in a second paycheck by being rehired in their old jobs.  Any of those employees could have returned to those jobs without debate- but according to the county’s pension policies, their pension should be stopped during the period they are re-hired.  Once they retire again, their new pension would be recalculated based on those additional years of service.

Ultimately we found more than 40 Fulton County Employees who were being paid by the taxpayers twice- both a pension and a paycheck—in violation of the county’s policies.  Fulton County has rules that prohibit retired employees from being rehired for more than 6 months in a calendar year.  The point of that policy is to prevent excessive double-dipping, and to open up these positions to ALL retirees, and not just the select and favored few.

But we found some employees who had been back working in what were supposed to be temporary positions for 4 years or more.  Until our report no one was checking to make sure these employees employment was not violating the county’s rules. Once our report aired there was a rash of criticism from County Commissioners that this practice had been allowed to go on for so long.  As Commissioner Emma Darnell said, how can she tell some of her constituents who are out of a job and don’t even have one paycheck, that the county is allowing some employees to pull in two paychecks—that you are paying for.

On the other side, some people believe these former public servants are the people best trained to do the job, and in addition, because you don’t have to pay them benefits, they are saving the taxpayers money.

Here is my response:  These employees are supposed to be “temporary” employees.  If someone outside the county were to take that job, they would not cost the tax payers for benefits either, because they are not full-time employees.  In addition, the policy does not prohibit re-hiring retired employees, it just prohibits them from working for more than 6 months in a calendar year.  Seems like a fair trade off to me, since by retiring these employees were making a choice not to stay on in their permanent position and to continue to serve the county on a fulltime basis any longer.

The blog Live Apartment Fire suggested double dipping was not wrong. The comparison made in that blog is that the county employees actions are like someone from the Military working for 20 years, retiring from the military, and then returning to the private sector in another job and receiving both their milirtary pension and a private paycheck.  I have no problem with that scenario, but that is not what is happening here.  In this case Fulton County employees are retiring from their county jobs, only to return to the exact same job and receive a second paycheck from the exact same employer.  They are being paid twice by the same “company” in this case, and that company is using tax dollars to fund those duel paychecks. Many of the viewers who wrote me say that would never happen in Corporate America.

In addition, after several employees were forced to resign or lose their county funded pension, it was suggested that WGCL was guilty of “advocacy journalism.”  Advocacy journalism is where a journalist gets involved in a story instead of just reporting it, until the reporter gets results and makes something happen.  That also was not the case here.  After bringing the violations of the policy to the County’s attention as part of our report, County Commissioners on their own, and without prompting from me, ordered a complete review of all of the double-dipping violations. In the end, the County Manager was criticized for failing to enforce the policy earlier, and those employees who were violating the rules resigned.  I did not suggest anyone resign, just as I did not suggest that the county review their policy- Those were decisions made by the people involved after we exposed these frequent violations of the county’s rules.

I don’t believe rules were made to be broken- In this case the County Commissioners felt there was good reason for the pension policies that prohibited reemployment of retired employees in the long term.  The Commission may now also look at whether that policy should be changed to allow these employees to be rehired on a more permanent basis.  Some people argue that makes good financial sense, and that’s a decision only the Commission has the power to make.

July 23, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Public Officials- Not so Public Information?

In the Media we all know about the cat and mouse game of tracking down public officials. We ask for interviews, they avoid us, and we are often left with no choice but to go on air with a “No Comment” response. But I have rarely seen the blatant lack of accountability of elected officials that I came across in recent weeks with the Fulton County School Board.

I was working on an investigation that identified a pretty significant waste of our tax dollars, in this case, of our school kids money. The School District was being over-charged 1.5 million dollars for basic school supplies. In more than a hundred cases we identified, the school district was being charged more than the general public for pencils, paper, printers and other items. So I took the findings of our report to the school board members, thinking if someone was wasting my money, I’d want to know about it. Contrary to my thought process, these elected school board members not only declined my repeated requests for a formal interview, but when I caught up with them at a school board meeting, they went to extremes to try to avoid me. They snuck into meetings, ran into bathrooms, and rushed out the door.

WATCH VIDEO HERE:  http://www.cbsatlanta.com/video/19699630/index.html

Through the Open Records laws I later got my hands on an email, sent by school spokesperson, Susan Hale, to the board members, advising them not to speak with us. The advice included getting away from me and my cameraman “as soon as possible without seemingly running away.” And “to keep from saying anything on camera that could come across as flustered, nervous, or guilty looking.”

WATCH VIDEO HERE: http://www.cbsatlanta.com/video/19722054/index.html

 The problem here is these people are elected by us, and accountable to the taxpayers. But somewhere along the way they forgot that. But we’re not letting up. Here at CBS Atlanta News we think it’s important to get answers to these Tough Questions. I’d like to hear from you about your thoughts. And if you have questions for these school board members, email me. Wendy.Saltzman@CBSAtlanta.com

June 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Finish Line

On Thanksgiving day I ran the Atlanta marathon.  For some reason every few years I pick something horribly grueling to challenge my mind, body, and spirit.  On my 26th Birthday I ran the Dublin, Ireland Marathon for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  I said that would be my first and last marathon. My knees are not what they used to be after having two knee surgeries from soccer injuries.

 Wendy Saltzman Marathon

 

Then last year I set my sights on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s 7 summits. A 9 day trek took me to the top of Africa’s highest mountain top.  The reward was the three day safari in the Serengeti after the climb was done. 

 kilimanjaro

Then this year I got swindled into running the Atlanta marathon by a friend of mine who was running and convinced me to sign up.  Halfway through the training together she got injured and could no longer run.  I was already committed to the marathon, so I was going to either have to train alone or give up.

 

So Thanksgiving day, just hours before I was supposed to board a plane home to spend the holiday with my family in Texas, I found myself lined up at the race’s starting line at Turner Field—26.2 miles and 4 plus hours of running ahead of me before my “holiday” could begin.

 

I spent the last 4 months training for this day.  The first 13 miles I was set to make my 4 hour finishing goal, but 15 miles into the race, the leg cramps set in—a runner’s worst enemy.   And there was not much I could do with 11 miles left to go. My only option was to stop and stretch, drink lots of fluids, and pull every ounce of will power available from every limb in my body, and keep running.

 

Those last 11 miles were grueling, but it was those miles that tested my character and my mind.  It would have been easy enough to stop.  For me, there was no option of giving up. I finished the race under 4 1/2 hours, leg cramps and all.  By no means did I “win” the race, but I was far from last.  I finished the race I was running.

wendy saltzman-marathon 

 

Several years ago my sister coaxed my mother into riding the AIDS ride from Minneapolis to Chicago, a 5 day 500 mile bicycle ride.  My mother will admit she was hardly in the physical shape to complete such a task.  But she has more mental endurance to push through the pains of life than anyone I know. She said each day the SAG truck pulled up behind her to pick up faltering riders, but she refused to give up and get off her bike.

 

To this day I keep a picture of her and my sister on my nightstand from that race.  On her AIDS Ride cycling jersey was a patch—“Never Give UP!”  In the ups and downs, mountains and valleys of that ride, she never gave in.  My marathon finish was a small tribute to my mother.

 

wendy saltzman marathon

December 5, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Handicapped Parking Violators- Are you one???

                I’ve been off line for a while— my time swamped with training for Atlanta’s Thanksgiving Day Marathon, a few charity events, and working on a several investigations for the station.  But here is one investigation I thought it might be worthwhile to highlight in specific:

                The story we aired about Handicapped Parking Abuse prompted a huge viewer response.  In the interest of full disclosure, let me say two things… First, initially I was hesitant about the story.  It was my New Directors idea, and he was right, the more handicapped people we spoke with, the more it became apparent abuse of handicapped spots is a significant problem. It affects not only the quality of life for disabled persons, but also their safety.  And Second, I have been guilty of running in to grab coffee, and the parking lot has been full, and I have parked in a handicapped area (Yes, the stripped areas count as being part of the handicapped “spot”).   Doing this story was a real educational experience for me and opened my eyes to why those of us who are “capable” really have no excuse for ever taking advantage of those spaces, EVEN the striped marked areas next to the spaces, which are also handicapped reserved areas.

                As part of our report, we spoke with a very kind man names DJ Frazier, who lives his life in a wheelchair.  He is a full time businessman, and a taxpaying citizen, who lives a fairly active life.  One of the things he said to us was that when his daughter wants to go somewhere and can’t understand why he can’t get out of his vehicle because the handicapped spots are blocked it makes him feel like less of a father.  Why should anyone take that away from him, when all it requires is that we walk a few more feet.

                Here are excerpts from a few of the viewers who wrote into us:

 

Wendy, great job! It is about time somebody brought some attention to this issue.

Thankfully my Wife and I are healthy and do not need the parking but we have never been able to figure out why the police ignore this situation.

 

Wendy, great job! It is about time somebody brought some attention to this issue.

Thankfully my Wife and I are healthy and do not need the parking but we have never been able to figure out why the police ignore this situation.

 

 

I am so glad that finally someone has the guts to address this issue.THANKS!  I remember when the handicap parking became a reality. I supported it. The spots would be close, and plainly marked with a big blue wheelchair. I thought it would be for handicapped people. Not so. Very rarely do you see someone in a wheelchair use it. Your doctor will issue a handicapped sticker for a headache! 

 

Thanks for doing the story on handicap parking. If policeman issue  parking tickets for expired meters, why can’t they issue tickets for illegally parking in handicap spaces? I would like for these people to get the maximum fine. Also I think they should spend 8 hours blindfolded or strapped down to a wheelchair and let them maneuver from 40 feet away from a store. Maybe then they would be grateful not to be handicapped. The handicapped people would be glad to trade places and walk the longer distances.

 

Thank you Ms.Saltzman,
I caught the 11pm news last night you were reporting on the abuse of handicap parking. I commend you on your efforts. I live in Canton,Georgia (Cherokee County) I have a handicap card for my wife who is a liver transplant candidate  very often we frequent Wal-mart here in Canton off of 575 (exit20) and we are unable to park in the designated parking spots because of the abuse I call the attention to the door greeters, but to no avail.

 

Thank you for the news story focusing on the problem of non-disabled drivers parking in disabled parking spaces.  My daughter is disabled, and we have a disabled parking permit.  We never ever use this permit unless she is actually in the car.  Yet we consistently find people parking illegally in these spaces.  The need for these spaces is not merely convenience.  It is a matter of safety and accessibility.  I have even reported these illegal parking issues to police before when in a public grocery store or discount store.  I have been told by the police there is nothing they can do because the parking lots are considered private property owned by the stores.  So basically, there is no actual fine given.  I urge people to confront others when violations are seen.  The only way it will stop is if people make others feel the humiliation of being confronted by their wrongdoing.

 

                And  those are just a handful of the dozens and dozens of emails I have received.  I think it is all important that we hold law enforcement as well as illegal parkers responsible for breaking the law.  If you see someone parking illegally in a handicapped sport, please call the police, and then call us. 

 

 

 

November 26, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Family

I was up in New York City recently for the National Emmy Ceremony.  And although I didn’t walk away with the statue this year, I did leave Manhattan with some wonderful memories.  Here is a picture of my two wonderful dates, my stunning mother, and devilishly handsome dad.

   I also was able to see my beautiful sister Brandy who lives in the City.  She is the mother of my new 8 week old neice, Danielle Ryan, and 2 1/2 year old nephew, Nicholas.

The other new important member of the Saltzman clan is my puppy BooBoo, a gorgeous Goldendoodle who keeps me occupied for hours on end. 

October 9, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stakeouts and Hidden Cameras

            I’ve spent about 16 hours in the car over the last few days, doing what some people seem to think it one of the coolest parts of my job.  The stakeout.  As I sit here for hours on end, it gives me a chance to catch up on mindless tasks.  In fact, I am writing this blog right now as I am sitting in the sweltering heat, running down a tank of $4 gas, staring at a parking lot.  But hey, my boss wants this story, so this is the price for a good investigative journalism.

 

The first question I always get is,”Wow!  So who are you staking out?”  And “Are you going to jump out of the car and ‘get them?’”  Ya… Something like that.  Except that stakeouts often require a lot more sitting, for very little action.  If you ask any photographer, this is by far the worst part of the job.  I talk with my photographer as we sit here about his weekend, upcoming vacations, and after about 4 or 5 hours, the car goes silent.  We’ve talked about just about everything, and we still have another 50 hours to spend together in tight quarters without bathrooms.  Not very glamorous.

 

I remember once at a previous job we got a tip that Goodwill workers were stealing from the thrift stores where they worked.  The tip came from an insider.  This was good stuff!  So me and my photographer spent 6 or 7 days documenting worker after worker walking out of the store, and loading up their cars with goodies.  Bingo!  We would sit all day until the end of the first shift of workers, and then again late at night when the second shift left after closing.  We probably put in 40 hours in front of that store.  Then finally on the last day, as we watch the supervisor walk out we asked her about all of the employees “goods” they were loading into their cars, including the piles she had put into her car.  “They purchased them,” she told us.  Ok, I asked to see the receipts.  She walked us into the store, and there it was… The book that logged every single one of the employees purchases—A Goodwill requirement.  Fortunately my exchange with the supervisor had been fairly non-confrontational from the start, so she was fine with our questions.  But that was a week worth of work, wasted.  That is my job.  A large part of it is checking out tips that may never turn into anything. 

 

            Most of my time is actually spent doing grueling, ho-hum work like putting in record requests and fighting government agencies for information and interviews.  There are some fun days where we do hidden camera shoots, but those days are the exception and not the rule.

 

            Which brings us to hidden cameras.  They are one of the best parts of my job, and the worst.  The bottom line is overall viewers love watching hidden camera stories, and I have made a career off of it.  I am nominated for a National Emmy for a hidden camera report on a ring of “Identity Creators” I did here at CBS Atlanta.  I was also nominated for another Investigative Emmy at my last job for a hidden camera report where we followed government workers to Las Vegas on a government funded junket.

 

            But with hidden cameras you really never know what you are getting.  Just yesterday I was on a hidden camera shoot.  Now, let me start here by saying there is a lot of vetting that goes into this before we are even allowed to take a hidden camera out of the office.  There are legal, ethical, and journalistic principals that have to be considered, and I have to get my News Director’s approval before all shoots.  We never take a hidden camera into any “private” area.  And we never use a hidden camera to document anything unless there is no other way to get the video.  Then once you take that camera out the door, what you are getting is a crap shoot.

 

            There are a lot of unknowns when a hidden camera comes into play.  You can see a “viewfinder,” so you basically have no idea what you are shooting, much less if the camera is even on.  We have shot video’s where the camera battery goes out, so there is audio but no video, we have shot video but maybe someone’s hand or a piece of clothing is in front of the camera, and there have been times we come back to the station with just plain nothing because the camera just wasn’t recording.  But I think my favorite, which just happened yesterday, is when we chop off someone’s head and all you see is a body in the video from with a talking chin.  This can be especially distracting when that person is a female.  She is saying great stuff.  So what do I do?  Show viewers her chest, or leave out the information she is saying.  Another dilemma. 

 

            So whose chest I was shooting yesterday?? And who have I been staking out writing this blog in the car all day is another subject…  You’ll have to wait until I post that story.  Stay tuned!

September 29, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lost?? The 30 Dollar Cab Ride

How many Peachtree Streets there are in Atlanta? I’ve lost count. I’ve been roped into training for the Atlanta marathon, which has expanded the time I spend touring my dear old ALT as I spend hours and hours in my running shoes. I consider my “training” moral support for my running obsessed friend Amy, who I swear spends more money on running gadgets than I do on my mortgage. When we “gear up” for a run, for me that means Running Shoes, Shorts, and an I pod. Now Amy on the other hand, is a running, sprinting, Inspector Gadget. If they sell it, she owns it. From “fuel belts’ (a terribly uncomfortable harness that holds canteens of water for long runs), to a head lamp and reflectors for running in the dark, to some strange squeegee towel that is supposed to have some magical powers to get cold when it is watered down. And the mac-daddy of them all, is her Garmin Forerunner watch, which is the Lamborghini of running devices. This thing does just about everything besides running for you. It tracks your distance, speed, and location using satellite trackers. It is so high-tech it even has an invaluable “Go Home” feature, which if you listen to the hype can map you back home using the fancy satellite technology in the case, like me, you get lost.

Hum… Lost. Yes Lost. My runs these days range from 12 to 18 miles which can get you in some pretty interesting predicaments. Amy and I headed out for our early Saturday morning run last week down the tranquil Morningside neighborhood. I’ve been there before house gazing. It’s beautiful. When we popped out near Emory Hospital, we were only about a third of the way through our run. 8 or 9 more miles to go… so we started meandering down side roads to avoid the heavy traffic. It became clear when we found ourselves near Ponce de Leon Avenue in DeKalb County, far far away from my Midtown home, that we were not going in the right direction. Exhausted and out of water, we stop into a convenience store to ask directions. “Where are we?” we asked the clerk. “At Rite Aid,” he curtly replies. Hum… Thanks Buddy. I know this girl running next to me looks like she may have lost her mind, but I think I figured that one out. No help from the clerk, we turn to Gadget Girl’s Garmin Forerunner to rescue us! Amy presses “Go home.” Click, Click, Click. Waiting, and Eureka! The Garmin plots our way home… Oh.. ugh… Her watch says we have 10 miles and 2 hours before we are going to get back to Midtown. But it only took us 9 miles (ON FOOT!) to get here!!! I throw my arms up in exhaustion. So my motivation (I.E, Amy), kicks me in the butt and says we will follow this little, itsy bitsy hand on this watch that will guide us back to Nirvana.

So we keep running, in whatever direction the hand on the watch points. Right, Left… I am so tired. I am lost. I have two miles, one mile to go. And then we are done. And, I have no idea where I am. We are at a convenience store somewhere in Decatur. “At Citgo,” I am sure the clerk would have told me. In a state of sheer exhaustion Amy calls us a cab and even though the clerk didn’t even seem to know where we were. Somehow the driver finds us, as we are soaking in sweat walking down Briarcliff. In a state of exhaustion, I try to reorient myself as the cab starts meandering us home. I look out the window and we are turning onto I-85 from North Druid Hills road. How did we run this far? A 30 dollars cab ride finally got my exhausted, aching body home… Thank Goodness for the Garmin Forerunner, hu?

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

   

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