Journalistic Ethics Week, Part 3: Mark Lunsford, Class Warfare, and Victims’ Rights at the St. Pete Times

When the A.C.L.U. manufactures an utterly frivolous legal issue that costs the state millions of dollars to litigate, the St. Petersburg Times views that as money well-spent in the interest of “ensuring the health of our democracy.”  When A.C.L.U.-associated lawyers profit from lawsuits arising from the group’s activism, the St. Petersburg Times doesn’t complain.  It’s all in the interest of ensuring the health of our democracy, you see, and if lawyers turn a few million dimes “keeping the system honest,” well, power to the people.

When health-care non-profits accept funding from hospitals and medical and drug companies that stand to profit from their activism, the St. Petersburg Times doesn’t smell a rat: they smell roses.  As they should.  Actually, they usually don’t even notice such transactions, since this is the way non-profits simply do business.

When non-profit executives draw six figure salaries and drive around in nice cars and get reimbursed for their expenses and hotel bills and meals — when they organize high-overhead charity balls and hold conference in nice resorts and buy expensive office furniture — the St. Petersburg Times doesn’t shove microphones in their faces and demand to know how much the office rugs cost, let alone the board’s last business lunch, complete with wine.

When someone from the social register who otherwise does good deeds displays personal failings, the St. Petersburg Times might report their DUI or announce their departure from some charity.  But they don’t follow such flawed people around, gleefully documenting their every error.

But when crime victims, especially those from the wrong side of the tracks, like Mark Lunsford, do any of these things, from making a living to comping a single meal, the St. Petersburg Times goes on the warpath.  And in doing so, they reveal an embarrassing elitism and an even more embarrassing inability to separate their antipathy for Lunsford’s cause (stricter sentencing and monitoring of sex offenders) from their allegedly objective scrutiny of his professionalism.

I’m used to the snickering double standards expressed by journalists towards activists for victims’ rights. But even I was surprised by the tone Times senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin used in attacking Mark Lunsford.  And I was doubly surprised that Martin felt entitled to rip into a local computer mogul for subsidizing Lunsford’s recent lobbying:

HOMOSASSA — Since his daughter Jessica was raped and murdered in 2005, Mark Lunsford has become one of America’s best-known child advocates. With the help of donations to his nonprofit foundation, Lunsford has lobbied nationwide for tougher laws against criminals who prey on children.

But unknown to most, Lunsford has had another source of income for the past two years — a Boca Raton company that could profit from the very child-protection measures Lunsford has sought to enact. . .

In an affidavit filed in a paternity case, Lunsford disclosed he is paid $4,000 every other week — more than $100,000 a year — by Technology Investors and its multimillionaire founder, Hank Asher.

Asher, who created databases used to track sexual predators and other criminals, is developing new technology to help in the fight against child molesters.

“Unknown to most.”  Where was it unknown where it needed to be known?  Lunsford’s name appears openly in conjunction with Asher and others working on child exploitation issues.  And why, precisely, shouldn’t Asher subsidize Lunsford?  Any “conspiracy” resides only in Susan Martin’s head: she seems to feel that there is something wrong with Hank Asher hiring Lunsford to lobby.  And, like, letting him sit next to him in his car:

Asher did not respond to calls seeking comment. Lunsford, who rode in Asher’s Mercedes during a media tour of company headquarters in December, says he sees nothing wrong with their arrangement.

Let’s see, who else engages in such nefarious activities?  Mercedes-driving!  Letting people sit next to you in your Mercedes?  Paying for lobbying that will financially enrich the person paying for the lobbying?  Why, who on earth would do that?


Everyone does, from the Cancer Society, to the Sierra Club, to the NAACP, to the anti-incarceration moonbats.  Lawyers and investors who profit from environment lawsuits and regulations underwrite environmental lobbying.  Companies that manufacture diversity curricula pay activists who demand more diversity education in the schools and workplaces.  Drug companies are the largest donors to patient associations lobbying for prescription drug coverage.  Doctors and hospitals support groups like the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, another non-profit founded by a bereaved family member and staffed by bereaved family members who surely earn salaries for their work representing the cause.

And it’s not just money for lobbying that get spread around: there are many ways to monetize activism, by which I mean earning a salary for doing it.  Every other tenured academician who holds any position on crime (or medicine or civil rights or politics) is not only pulling a nice salary for their research but also tapping into lucrative grants, consulting contracts with government agencies, speaker’s fees, oh the list goes on and on and on, but Susan Martin apparently doesn’t mind any of this.

You don’t see her going after Barry Scheck for making money off his Innocence Project work.  You don’t see her suggesting that anyone is inappropriately profiting from tragedy when technology firms that make DNA testing supplies use Scheck’s activism to make the case that the government should subsidize their research and buy their products.

She only minds these things when it’s an issue she opposes.  Like enhancing sentencing and monitoring of sex offenders.  Then she views the entire project with abject suspicion:

Asked what he does for Asher’s company, Lunsford says: “It’s not what I do for them, it’s what they do for me.”  The steady pay, he says, enabled him to dissolve his foundation last year and concentrate on what he likes best — lobbying for Jessica’s laws, not raising money.

Who does Susan Martin think she is, demanding to know “what [Lunsford] does for Asher’s company”?  He gets money from them to lobby, like a million others do.

Anti-incarceration biases clearly color Martin’s view of a relationship that would seem utterly unremarkable to her if the politics were different.  But her elitism utterly blinds her, driving her, and others at the paper, to make serial allegations about Mark Lunsford over amounts of money so small that they wouldn’t cover the fringe benefits for even one executive at many non-profits:

[Asher’s financial support] is the latest revelation about a man [Lunsford] who has been hailed as a hero but whose handling of the foundation’s finances has also raised questions about the line between advocacy and personal enrichment.

Here are some of Martin’s accusations of “enrichment”:

Immediately after Couey’s March 18 arrest and the discovery of Jessica’s body, almost $50,000 in donations poured into a trust set up for the Luns­fords at a local bank.

“They wrote to help with our bills or to use however you wish,” says Lunsford, who bought a used truck.

Oh no, he bought a used truck.  If only he’d bought a violin, or donated the money to NPR.

Lunsford says some of the money went into the nonprofit foundation he set up that spring with the help of Joe Boles, a nephew who briefly served as a foundation director.

While in Sarasota for a 2005 fundraiser, Boles and a girlfriend got into a drunken, violent fight at a Hyatt hotel. “Blood was literally on all of the walls, furniture and bedding,” police said.

The $4,789 in damages were billed to a foundation credit card; Boles disappeared and never repaid the money.

OK, so four years ago, Lunsford’s nephew got drunk and made an ass of himself.  The foundation paid the damages, as it should, which came to less than $5,000.  What are you going to do, string Lunsford up?

I’ve worked as a non-profit fundraiser.  I’ve worked as a political consultant.  I even spent five years on the other side of the table, as an event worker.  In some capacity or another, I’ve worked or attended scores of non-profit events.  Let me just observe that while bloody brawls are hardly typical of non-profit fundraisers (I won’t say the same for political events), money still can and does get wasted in a million different ways that people like Susan Martin would never dream of disputing, let alone disputing repeatedly over time.

For example, should all non-profits give up their expensive office suites, the flower arrangements at their special events, the corporate cars for executives?  I could go on, but I won’t.  To rant on and on and on about this $5,000 and other penny-ante expenses, which the Times has done for years, more than smacks of bias.  And speaking of bias:

That incident went unnoticed at the time as attention focused on Lunsford’s metamorphosis from trucker with a high-school eduction to impassioned child advocate.

“Trucker with a high-school education.”  Nice.  Notice how Martin keeps pretending that there is some objective Greek chorus “paying attention to” Mark Lunsford, when it is really just her, and her peers, scrutinizing his every step.

This is not a brief for Mark Lunsford. I have reservations about him based on allegations that arose about child porn on his computer.  But given the media’s attitude towards the subject of victim advocacy, I have little faith that I have ever opened a newspaper and read an accurate account of him.

What I definitely don’t care about is Lunsford receiving a perfectly ordinary salary for important advocacy work.  But Susan Martin cares.  Apparently, she finds the following remuneration for the following work excessive:

[Lunsford] helped win quick passage in Florida of the nation’s first Jessica’s Law, which imposed tougher penalties on child molesters and required many of those released from prison to wear tracking devices for the rest of their lives.

Lunsford moved on, persuading legislators in more than 40 states to pass their own Jessica’s Laws.

That is called: “work.”

There were fundraising bike rallies, appearances with Oprah and Bill O’Reilly, talk of book and movie deals. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called Luns­ford “a great man” and donated $63,812 from his inaugural to the foundation.

“It was rock star status,” says Cheryl Sanders, a cousin of Luns­ford who served as foundation treasurer.

“He liked that lifestyle. He’d never seen so much money in his life.”

Here’s the really funny thing: if he were used to that type of money, and knew how to play to the media, we wouldn’t be hearing about it, either.  If he spent it in the right restaurants, and made the right types of appearances, for the right causes — even falling-down drunk — it wouldn’t make headlines:

In the three years of the foundation’s existence, Lunsford drew salaries totalling $118,800 and was reimbursed for travel costs, either by the foundation or by organizations that invited him to speak.

$118,000 divided by three is nearly $40,000 a year.  How dare a trucker with a high school education earn $3,277 a month?  “Reimbursed for travel costs . . . by organizations that invited him to speak”?  Wow, stop the presses!  Even after we bought him that used truck?

[Cheryl] Sanders [a cousin who served as foundation treasurer] wondered about some of the expenses charged to a foundation credit card — $1,435 for furniture from Kane’s, $73 for drinks at Outback after Couey was sentenced to death (the restaurant “comped” the rest of the meal, she says) and gas for travel not related to the foundation.

This is the best they can do?  $73 to celebrate Couey’s sentencing?  “Gas for travel not related to the foundation”?  Does Susan Martin actually think non-profit executives don’t routinely write off cocktails and green fees, not to mention entire trips, to a power of 100 of that night at Outback, as entertainment expenses, and donor grooming, or to celebrate a legislative victory, or thank staff for their performance?  That is half a bill for one lunch to introduce a new employee or any of the thousands of other entirely ordinary corporate activities non-profits engage in, and yet, because this particular man did it (at Outback!), the St. Petersburg Times is making it a federal case.

Seventy-three dollars.  Years ago.  What did Couey’s lawyers eat that night, fat on the taxpayer’s dime after weeks of milking the system in the most despicable ways?

Whenever I read an article like this, I wonder what type of salary the paper’s reporters expect for their own kids, once Junior gets that degree in Social Justice from Yale and heads out to earn a living doing advocacy work on right types of causes.

I also wonder at how absolutely secure reporters are in their presumptions about everything from class to their apparently over-rated faith in the objectivity of their reporting.

But at the bottom of all of this lies a truly corrosive attitude towards all crime victims who dare to speak out.  There is one standard for victims’ rights associations and another standard for the A.C.L.U.; one standard for scrutinizing prosecutors and another for scrutinizing the defense bar.

Remember the movie Reversal of Fortune, the dramatization of Alan Dershowitz’s courageous and principled defense of Claus Von Bulow (written by Alan Dershowitz)?  Remember the gritty basketball/bull sessions in which Dershowitz lectures his law students that he takes clients like Von Bulow even though Von Bulow is scum so he can subsidize his real work selflessly representing oppressed members of the underclasses — that is, if by “selflessly” he actually means “getting paid absurd amounts by an Ivy League school when not being jetted around the world first class to get paid even more money for offering my opinions on criminal justice, which happen to conform perfectly with the opinions of this cheering squad of reporters hanging onto my every word?

Everybody gets paid for their activism.

Even journalists.


2 thoughts on “Journalistic Ethics Week, Part 3: Mark Lunsford, Class Warfare, and Victims’ Rights at the St. Pete Times”

  1. Saw your post on Belmont Club and took the link to your blog. I must say this is very good work! I have added you to my reading list.

    Thanks for the enlightenment on the article about Mr. Lundsford. I suspect he would trade it all away and more in a second to have his daughter back. I know I would to get Jon back.


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