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Lyons: The perils of the official written statement

The fashionable method of mass communication for public officials, and many others, is the written statement.

Written statements aren't new, but are far more pervasive than ever for good reasons and bad. Usually not intentionally, but sometimes they stifle communication instead of fostering it.

The beauty of the written statement is that it can be instantly posted on a website, tweeted or emailed. Some might simply run it verbatim, shorten the message or ignore it.

From the perspective of the public official, it's better to get the information to dozens of outlets on media mailing lists, and many will be satisfied with what's provided within the four corners of the document.

Generally speaking, that's not how the Northwest Herald or other legitimate media outlets roll – not when it comes to larger stories that aren't garden-variety arrests or traffic crashes.

There are attempts to have questions raised by the written statement answered and context provided when necessary.

Journalists do that because elected officials spend a great deal of time crafting, parsing or even spinning precisely what they want to say and don't want to say. They tell you what they want you to hear.

If there are things left unsaid or statements that lead to other questions, it's our job to ask them. Sometimes we get answers. Sometimes they just say they have nothing more to say than what's in the provided statement.

When they say that, journalists look at it harder and wonder why things were phrased certain ways.

McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi released a statement Wednesday on the conclusion of its investigation into whether Undersheriff Andrew Zinke committed official misconduct by speaking with a friend about a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into trucks shipping tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana with logs identifying the friend's Crystal Lake company as a destination.

Here's the money line: "While some may consider the dissemination of what would appear to be highly confidential and sensitive information an alarming and problematic matter, such conduct does not violate the Official Misconduct statute," Bianchi's statement said.

The money question is easy: Did your office contact the DEA about the supposed leak of information and whether they believe that Zinke interfered with an ongoing investigation? Isn't that critical to anyone conducting a serious probe? What did the DEA say?

Those are among the questions that Bianchi isn't answering from me or our reporter. Here are some others:

Who are the "some" who may consider? What do you consider, Mr. Bianchi? You're the state's attorney. Your office did the investigation. "Some" think the apocalypse is coming Friday.

Was it "alarming and problematic" in your opinion, and why are you qualifying that the information "would appear to be highly confidential and sensitive?" Was it or wasn't it?

The DEA's reaction to Zinke's actions is the one that matters. It doesn't matter much whether sheriff's Sgt. John Koziol perceived some ethical breach, at least it doesn't matter legally.

Zinke is running for sheriff in 2014 against opponents Bill Prim, whose fundraiser Bianchi attended, and former sheriff's deputy and lawyer Jim Harrison. What could matter are the political ramifications of a cloud hanging over Zinke.

Does Zinke deserve that cloud or doesn't he and to what degree? I'm pretty sure Bianchi is in a position to know, at least he should be. He could be deferring to other investigations still pending within the sheriff's office or possibly within the DEA.

But the language of the written statement makes it sound as though Zinke did something wrong, yet Bianchi isn't willing to attribute that assertion to his office. Why do you suppose that is?

Your turn to fill in the blanks.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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