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Utah weekly looks the other way; editor admits failure to cover hospital embezzlement, sex case was due to a fear that the paper would lose revenue.

Editor admits failure to cover hospital embezzlement, sex case was due to a fear that the paper would lose revenue

A weekly newspaper in the small town of Beaver has admitted entering into a two-year conspiracy to keep quiet a town scandal that involved sex and embezzlement of possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars from a community hospital.

The question is, how can a town of 2,000 people keep a major secret for two years?

In mid-January a Salt Lake television station revealed that civic leaders, many citizens, and the town's newspaper - the Beaver Press - had hushed up a sex scandal and embezzlement involving two local hospital administrators.

It was, in fact, the ultimate in "the press should bring only good news" syndrome.

The case involved Beaver Valley Hospital director Lee Strong and assistant director Mary Lowe who had carried on an illicit affair for 17 years. When the affair ended two years ago, authorities discovered that the pair may have stolen tens of thousands of dollars from the city-owned hospital, Salt Lake City-based KSL-TV reported Jan. 12.

Publisher-editor Lisa Yardley of the Beaver Press admitted that she had not meet her journalistic responsibility.

"I was asked to withhold the information until a time when they could give me pertinent information," she explained.

Indeed, she was aware it was a big story, but she had received a clear message from the city leaders that she was expected not to sully the reputation of the town.

Yardley said she felt threatened with a loss of business if she published the story - certainly not a new threat to a small publisher in cases such as this.

"It was embarrassing to them, and they claimed ... they wanted me not to throw mud at the county," she commented. "I was accused of throwing mud."

Because of the threats of loss of revenue, she decided the Beaver Press would ignore the issue. Along with missing Medicaid money, about $3,000 a month had disappeared from petty cash funds. In addition, proceeds from the sale of hospital equipment had vanished. Authorities were unable to come up with even an estimate of the total money missing over the long period.

City authorities began an investigation in 1990 when other hospital employees reported financial irregularities.

Last fall Lowe pleaded guilty to several lesser charges and testified against her former lover. She was ordered to pay restitution of about $9,000 for converting hospital photo equipment to her own use and was put on probation.

Strong was convicted of four counts of felony theft and misuse of public money. In December he was sentenced to serve 10 months in the Beaver County Jail. Throughout his trial, Strong's attorneys insisted he had done nothing wrong.

One problem was that most of the pertinent records were missing when the investigation began.

"We had to reconstruct the books completely because most of the records were gone by the time we got to the hospital," Beaver County Attorney Leo Kanell said. "We felt like it was a pretty light sentence."

The other problem, of course, was the lack of cleansing publicity - a result of the press failing in its watchdog function.

Nelson is an associate professor of journalism at Brigham Young University and formerly worked for the Salt Lake Deseret News.

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Title Annotation:Lisa Yardley, editor of Beaver Press
Author:Nelson, Jack
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Feb 8, 1992
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