An Open Letter to KDKA Investigative Reporter Andy Sheehan
Like thousands of other people, I was shocked and disappointed when you endangered the life of your dog Bentley by leaving him locked in your car with no ventilation on a hot afternoon. First and foremost, as a dog owner myself, I’m glad Bentley didn’t suffer any serious injury from the incident. We can all agree on that.
But from there, things get considerably more complicated, especially after reading the apology you posted to your Facebook page the following day. The reason for my conflicted emotions is simple.
Andy Sheehan, you ruined my life.
For the sake of those reading who aren’t aware, I used to be a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The district I represented was at the epicenter of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, which quickly consumed every waking moment of me and my staff. After doing some investigative reporting of my own (ironically), I discovered fairly serious corruption taking place between the biggest drilling company in the area and the PA Department of Environmental Protection. To make a long and complex story short, we found unmistakable evidence of the drilling company and the state regulators colluding to withhold information from tests performed on drinking water; this story was verified and published by the New York Times.
Even before the story broke, I began to get harassed by certain members of the media, including you, Mr. Sheehan. The drilling company was a huge advertiser and they were exerting pressure to discredit me in the press; it was confirmed to me by a KDKA newsroom employee in confidence.
You specifically became very aggressive, Mr. Sheehan. Do you remember the time in 2012 you sent me a document containing emails taken wildly out of context to imply I was asking the drilling company for perks like a trip to the Super Bowl? I’ll never forget what you told me on the phone that morning. “I’m going to get you one way or another.” So I drove down to your studio and did a thirty-minute on-camera interview with you in which you grilled me relentlessly but I managed to give a reasonable answer to your questions. Only after I was able to prove that the emails had been leaked to you by the drilling company itself did you finally agree to drop the story. But the big story wasn’t far behind.
On May 31, 2013, you confronted me with a camera crew outside the GetGo in Bridgeville over my use of online pseudonyms to debate constituents (also using fake names) who were working in concert with the drilling company to spread misinformation on the issue. History has now shown I had done nothing illegal. I didn’t violate ethics rules or misuse taxpayer dollars. What I did do was get suckered into a pointless and juvenile fight on the internet, which was admittedly not a smart move but hardly a mortal sin. I tried to defend myself and discuss the issue, but you wanted no part of it.
You finally, in your own words, “got me”.
Beginning that night, you ran no less than ten stories on KDKA-TV in which you eviscerated me. You called the Washington County District Attorney and asked if he would look into it; when he said yes (because he didn’t even know the details yet), you immediately reported I was under criminal investigation. Then you called the Dauphin County District Attorney and asked if they would assist Washington County; when they said yes, the story became two criminal investigations. For the record, I was never even contacted by any law enforcement agency over the incident. Not one time. But because it was on the news, everyone believed it.
There is no way to describe the feeling in your stomach as you feel everything you’ve worked for in your life rapidly spinning out of control. People look at you differently in the grocery store. Colleagues avoid you because you’re “toxic”. Your entire life changes. But you didn’t stop there.
Much like you did, I issued an apology, handwritten and sent via certified mail, to the individuals involved. The wording was remarkably similar to your apology. The lead story on KDKA the next night was you sitting on the woman’s front porch with her refusing to accept my apology. The piece ran for the first seven minutes of a thirty-minute newscast.
The next day, the women staged a picket outside my district offices, demanding my resignation. You showed up in the KDKA van at almost the same time they did to get the coverage. A few days later, when those same protesters organized a charter bus trip to Harrisburg to literally chase me through the halls of the State Capitol, yelling and screaming with professionally-made signs, somehow your sister station in Harrisburg was there to film it for your newscast that night. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as embarrassed in my entire life as I was that day, hiding in a random office while these people took great delight in shredding my reputation.
Let’s be honest, Mr. Sheehan. By this point, there is no way you didn’t realize this entire series of events was as staged as a third grade Christmas pageant. You’re too smart not to realize it. Before long, the clip of my interview was showing up in your promo clips. You submitted it for awards. But you and I both know, even if you’ll never admit it, that what you did to me a was a total hatchet job that had nothing to do with the truth. And you let it go on and on and on. I even received unsolicited messages from other reporters at your station acknowledging you weren’t treating me fairly.
It’s no exaggeration to say my life changed forever after our encounter in that GetGo parking lot.
I didn’t have the money or political muscle to combat what you were doing to me. I fought like hell to keep my seat, but the writing was on the wall. My own Democratic leadership lost faith in me and then began working against me in my re-election bid.
I won the primary but lost in the November 2014 general election. From then on, even as I tried to move on with my life and focus on raising my sons, I was forever digging myself out of the hole. When my mother filed a sensationalistic lawsuit against me for the purpose of family revenge, you ran the story without hesitation. You put my wedding photos of me and my family and friends on the news. You may not know this, Mr. Sheehan, but the day your story ran in February 2015, my grandfather, who taught me much of what I knew about politics, suffered a severe heart attack and was placed in intensive care in Canonsburg Hospital. He never fully recovered and died three months later. And in case you were wondering, my mother dropped the lawsuit.
I tried to mount a political comeback in 2016, but the damage had been done. Between you and your colleague Marty Griffin, my reputation was damaged beyond repair. I lost the primary by 117 votes.
Along the way, I focused on rebuilding my law practice, but I wasn’t the same person I used to be. I hope you never find this out for yourself, Mr. Sheehan, just how dark and lonely the world can be when your dirty laundry, true or untrue, is aired out for the world to see over and over again. I was in a pretty bad place and I made some bad decisions in an effort to try and get back to normal, not that I knew what it even was anymore. Earlier this year, I chose to voluntarily resign my license to practice law as a result of my bad decisions. But then again, you know all about that because KDKA was right there to cover the story. Again.
I’m not going to say you are to blame for every bad decision I made. I’m an adult and I am responsible for my actions, and there were other factors in play as well. But I’ve replayed it over and over in my mind, it’s undeniable; it all started the day you got me in the GetGo parking lot.
But enough about me. Let’s get back to you, Mr. Sheehan.
I read your apology, in which you admitted to a “serious lapse in judgment” and asked us to forgive you and use your incident as a “teachable moment.” I thought about what you said long and hard. I really did. But try as I might, I just can’t reconcile something in my mind.
Why should I, or anyone else, forgive you when you have not only failed to do so in similar circumstances and actually made matters considerably worse under the insincere pretext of journalism? If your incident hadn’t been captured on Facebook, I highly doubt you would have issued an apology. Did you apologize because you meant it, or because you got caught?
You spoke of your experience as a “teachable moment”, but the moment goes far deeper than remembering not to leave your dog in a hot car; you knew that already. The real teachable moment is whether or not your experience of being publicly admonished by thousands of people you’ve never even met has changed your perspective on how you conduct yourself.
Your story didn’t even make it onto the news once (let alone ten times) but I guarantee you’ll be forever known to many people as the guy who left his dog in a hot car and then lied about how long you were gone. When you’re out with your family and someone approaches you, you’re no longer going to be reasonably sure it will be a compliment from a fan. When people stare at you in the grocery store, it may not be solely because they recognize you from television; it may be because you’re the guy who left his dog in a hot car and lied about how long you were gone. The internet never forgets, and most people don’t want to hear your side of the story once their minds are made up. It’s a big part of why I’m planning on moving my family out of the area I’ve called home my entire life. I don’t ever want my sons to get the looks I just described because of how people perceive their father.
So, do I forgive you, Andy Sheehan? I’m honestly not sure. You’re asking me to extend a courtesy to you that you explicitly denied me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one whose life has been forever impacted by your hostile style of journalism. Incredibly, I still try to look for the best in people, even though you have exposed me to the worst.
I guess it comes down to this question. What was the actual teachable moment, and did you learn anything as a result?