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Carnahan bodyguard manhandles TV cameraman

April 18, 2000
By: Michael Patrick Carney
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - There are always several versions of reality. But this time there's a videotape.

A crew from KTVI-TV in St. Louis was shooting a story at about 3 p.m. Wednesday on the grounds of Jefferson City Memorial Airport when they saw Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan headed for a waiting airplane.

"He just happened along," said Elliott Davis, a reporter for the Fox-owned station.

The journalists approached.

Carnahan got out and was greeted by Davis, shaking his hand.

The two-term Democratic governor then extended his hand to Larry Washington, a KTVI photojournalist for about 30 years.

Carnahan asked the reporter what he wanted and put his hand over the camera lens.

"Governor, let me answer a question," Davis replied. "Does the state have too many airplanes, governor?"

At virtually the same time, Sgt. Elbert Marshall, a 19-year veteran of the state Highway Patrol, moved in and began pushing Washington away from the governor.

"It was a pretty violent encounter," said Davis, a 20 year veteran of St. Louis news. "It almost looked like a football move."

Washington continued taping, as he shoved 20-30 feet back into a nearby hangar.

Meanwhile, Carnahan and a second unidentified bodyguard were trying to cover Davis's microphone.

The tape ends with a wobbly shot of the hangar floor.

Washington, through his attorney, said he was held against a hangar wall for about five minutes. He was not allowed to film again until the airplane was ready to takeoff.

"I certainly regret the incident," Carnahan said in an interview Tuesday. "It was an unfortunate accident." Things at the airport happened very quickly, and Carnahan said he felt "very much intruded on" by the journalists.

On Friday, Carnahan was quoted by the Associated Press saying that the reporters had "rushed at the car" and were "escorted" away by police.

The video tape from KTVI, however, paints a different scene.

As for Marshall's actions, Carnahan said it was not illegal but, "I don't know whether it was appropriate."

The Highway Patrol, however, was more supportive of its officer than the governor.

That's what the nine-person detail is trained to do, said Maj. Michael Pace of the Highway Patrol.

Col. Wendell Wilhoit, the Patrol's superintendent, said Marshall was authorized to use force because the journalists blocked Carnahan's path -- although the KTVI video tape does not show that Carnahan was impeded.

Wilhoit said he closed his investigation without viewing the KTVI videotape. Officers are authorized to use physical force when someone impedes the governor, Wilhoit said.

His staff refused to release Marshall's account, however, citing its status as an "open investigative report."

This is because a lawyer for Larry Washington, the photojournalist, expressed interest in filing a citizens complaint with the patrol.

"We do intend to pursue a complaint," said Chet Pleban, an attorney for Washington. "Focus is on civil aspects at the moment, but we certainly can't rule out criminal charges."

Pleban said he is concerned Wilhoit closed his investigation without contacting Washington.

"The aggressor is clearly Carnahan, without question, as well as the Sergeant," Pleban said. "Carnahan's actions were clearly inappropriate."

KTVI's news director, Brad Remington, said he received a call from Carnahan's chief of staff, Chris Sifford, and the Highway Patrol before the TV crew had even returned to St. Louis.

"They have tried to spin this four or five different ways," Remington said.

At first, they said the trooper didn't realize Davis and Washington were journalists.

Then they alleged the pair was in a location closed to the public, peppered Carnahan with questions and blocked his path to the airplane.

"Wishful thinking," said Remington. "That clearly didn't happen, and the tape shows that."

Bob Priddy, news director of Missourinet, a radio news network, agreed to view a tape of the incident. His take? The TV crew was rude.

"I think the trooper overreacted," he said. "It seems to me that the TV crew was not without a lot of blame in this, too."

"It doesn't look to me like they showed any courtesy," said Priddy. "Sometimes you get what you ask for, but I think that may have been excessive."

Wilhoit said the journalists should have made an appointment.

"How scary is that? Are you telling me we can only do scheduled interviews? The state can use police force to stop questioning?" wondered Remington.

"I think if this had been Ashcroft, the reaction from the media would have been different," Remington said, referring to Carnahan's likely GOP opponent in the November Senate race.