By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Someone died.
His name was Phillip Lee Terry. He was killed in a forklift accident at Amazon’s Plainfield warehouse in September 2017.
Terry was 59 when he died. He left behind a grieving wife, son, two grandchildren, father and sister. He was an avid swimmer and a devoted Auburn football fan.
His death ought to be at the center of the dispute dividing Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, The Indianapolis Star and Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel like that’s the case.
Holcomb is upset with Reveal and the Star for publishing a lengthy story that says, among other things, says the governor and the state tried to cover up details surrounding Terry’s death in order to minimize or eliminate any responsibility for the accident on Amazon’s part. The company initially was fined in the tragedy, but a later decision overturned the fine.
Holcomb and other state officials did so, the story goes, as part of a campaign to secure a second Amazon headquarters, which would have brought many jobs and much money to Indiana.
Holcomb objected to the story.
On the day after Thanksgiving, he had his general counsel, Joe Heerens, send cease-and-desist letters to Reveal and the Star demanding a retraction and an apology to Holcomb.
Heerens’ letter to Reveal focused its attention on undermining the credibility of one of the piece’s main sources, a former Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector named John Stallone.
Heerens asserts that Stallone fabricated a meeting with Holcomb and Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble in which the governor and the commissioner told Stallone to resign if he wasn’t willing to go easy on Amazon.
Heerens also says Stallone didn’t resign from his IOSHA job but instead was fired for poor performance. And the governor’s counsel maintains that Stallone was wrong about the number of safety violation citations – the state says four, Stallone says eight – the inspector wanted to report.
Heeren’s argues that Reveal and the Star easily could have ascertained these facts.
That’s a matter of some contention, given that the governor and state officials refused to be interviewed for the stories. Instead, they issued blanket denials.
And that undercuts their credibility because Stallone apparently recorded a conversation in which the head of IOSHA counseled Amazon officials on how to evade any responsibility for Terry’s death.
The story and the dispute have prompted demands from Democratic state legislators and candidates for governor that an independent investigation is conducted into Terry’s death.
Indiana’s chattering class has dismissed these calls as a political stunt – just more Democrat-and-Republican fun ‘n’ games as the state heads into another election cycle.
Doubtless, Democrats do have partisan motives.
But that doesn’t mean the idea of doing an independent investigation isn’t a good one.
It’s clear that there are real and important issues in dispute here.
If Reveal and – by publishing the story – the Star made errors of fact, those should be corrected immediately. Any journalist’s first and foremost duty is to the truth.
But, if anyone in the state government attempted to cover up anything related to Terry’s death, the people of this state should know about it.
And Holcomb’s should be the loudest voice demanding that they do know about it.
Because, just as journalists have a duty, so does he.
That duty isn’t, as his general counsel’s letter to the Star implies, to protect his reputation or the reputations of state employees. Nor is it simply to preserve the state’s “positive business climate.”
Eric Holcomb isn’t just the governor for the business community. Nor is he just the governor for Republicans or hardworking state employees.
He is – or at least he should be – every Hoosier’s governor.
He was Phillip Lee Terry’s governor, too.
That ought to mean something.
FOOTNOTE: John Krull is the director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.