3 “huh?” reasons

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Last Wednesday, I accused SPJ of being unethical. Last weekend, SPJ responded. Sort of.


SPJ’s Executive Committee met Saturday in Washington, DC. These senior SPJ leaders briefly discussed the revisions being made to the Code of Ethics, which hasn’t been updated since the mid-’90s.

For the first time, SPJ president Dave Cuillier explained how he decided to spend $11,000 on a meeting of the Ethics Committee in Columbus, Ohio, without telling the board of directors (or anyone else) about it.

His explanation raised more questions than it answered…

We had a grant application for the SDX Foundation for $6,000 to have this in-person meeting. They denied it for various reasons, the main one being: They didn’t feel that was something SDX money should be used for, and if SPJ thinks it’s important, SPJ should fund it itself.

Sigma Delta Chi is SPJ’s philanthropic, nonprofit foundation. Why did Cuillier go there for $6,000 when he later raided SPJ coffers for $11,000? How come he didn’t tell the SPJ board he was going to SDX? How come he didn’t send them an email afterward?

I wasn’t in DC to ask these questions. I was listening to a live stream (which I agitated for a few years ago and, to SPJ’s credit, is now a regular feature). I heard Cuillier wrap up his story like this…

So we just had to move forward, with SPJ carrying the ball. Michael raised the question, “What’s the process on that? Who gets to decide whether money is spent on this or not?” I think the technical answer is, well, it’s the prerogative of the executive director and the president.

So Reason No. 1 boils down to…

The SDX board of directors said no. We didn’t have a Plan B, we didn’t have time to ask the SPJ board, and besides, they might’ve also said no. So we just did it on our own.

But that’s not as illogical as the second reason.

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Reason No. 2: You should know what you don’t know.


Executive Committee member Bill McCloskey followed up…

I disagree the board didn’t have an opportunity to talk about this. The board reviewed the budget, the board asked no questions about the budget. If the board wanted to read any of those 30 pages of budget and ask, “What is this line item? Is there enough money here if we decide to have an onsite meeting?” – they could have asked that question. No one asked that question. What’s the problem?

SPJ board member Andy Schotz, who was sitting in the meeting as an observer, asked executive director Joe Skeel: How much money was allocated in the budget for this meeting?

Skeel replied, “There’s no specific line item for a meeting of the Ethics Committee to do the revision.”

So Reason No. 2 is just plain crazy…

You approved the budget – and you never asked about something that doesn’t exist in its 30 pages. Thus, you have no right to complain.

But that’s not as surreal as the third reason.

Joe Skeel Dave Cuillier Kevin Smith

Reason No. 3: Ethics are like air-conditioners.


Skeel added this: “There’s also no budget line item to hire a part-time person to make membership calls.”

Cuillier elaborated…

Things come up during the year unexpectedly. The air-conditioning unit [at headquarters] breaks down, we hire a student to make membership calls, things like this the board doesn’t approve, and Joe takes care of it. So technically, there’s been nothing wrong. Nothing illegal or inappropriate.

So Reason No. 3 is the lawerly answer…

A meeting that costs $11,000 you didn’t know about for a group of people you didn’t approve (the president picked them) is no different than an AC unit that burns out or a kid calling lapsed members to urge them to renew.

This isn’t the first time SPJ leaders have given lame answers that would make journalists shake their head if their sources said the same things with straight faces.

In my three terms on the board, this has happened with three different groups of leaders. So it’s not personal, it’s institutional. How to fix it? Come back next Monday.


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