For over a year now, WSMV-Channel 4 reporter Larry Brinton has been on the hunt for every misstep of Pedro Garcia, relentlessly mocking the Metro public schools director on air for his "dictatorial" style. Now, in the wake of Brinton's latest salvoa report on Garcia's prodigious cell phone use and his rambling outgoing messagethe top schools director is not exactly mending fences.
"I have never listened to him; I don't pay attention to him," a relaxed Garcia told Desperately. "What he says is funny to me. His credibility is limited so it's no sweat off my back."
Earlier this month, Brinton reported that in a six-month period, Garcia made a whopping 336 cell phone calls to California, where he worked and went to graduate school, and another 185 calls to Iowa, where he has family. The married Garcia also made 26 phone calls to a telephone number in California listed to a Judith Wagner. That revelation in Brinton's report sounded, shall we say, questionable, but, Garcia aides tell the Scene, Wagner is merely the girlfriend of his best friend and that's where the director often reaches him.
Brinton also reported that Garcia made 50 calls to a residence in California where a fireman answered the phone. He reported another 34 calls made to an unlisted number in San Luis Obispo. While Brinton pointed out that Garcia's monthly calls don't typically fall outside Metro's $99-a-month phone plan, the reporter argued that's not why Garcia was given a phone to begin with.
"There is certainly nothing illegal about his calls," Brinton reported, no doubt disappointedly. "But isn't his cell phone supposed to be used for calls concerning education at Metro schools?"
Since emerging from retirement last year and providing an instant lift to the beleaguered Channel 4, the 73-year-old Brinton has mentioned Garcia on the air more than 30 times, often preceding his name with adjectives like "fierce," "combative" and "dictatorial." Brinton's reporting may rise to hyperbole on occasion. But given the free pass that the local press has afforded Garcia since he arrived here three years ago, the veteran Channel 4 reporter is the only voice Garcia's detractors have. Unlike the horde of Nashville's young, blow-dried reporters who grew up idolizing the likes of Stone Phillips, Brinton is a real journalist. He has good sources and an independent perspective on how Nashville should operate. You may not agree with his take on local news, but it's based on a half a century of observing public officials at work.
In any case, Garcia sometimes makes himself an easy target. Last week, Brinton played Garcia's cell phone voice-mail message on air. In the segment, you hear Garcia promoting Metro schools before awkwardly changing subjects to, of all things, the University of Southern California athletic program. (Garcia is a USC alum.) Then, he rattles off the national championships that USC teams have won and the SAT scores of its incoming freshmen. If a principal wanted to leave a message for Garcia about hiring a teacher, she'd have to listen to him ramble on about the Trojans for 20 seconds. A clearly irritated Brinton told viewersin what made for great televisionthat he's tired of reporting about Pedro Garcia, but that it was impossible for him to ignore this latest quirk. Then he read out Garcia's cell phone number for everyone watching.
Desperately had Ben Zeppos, the Scene's diligent intern, review eight months of Garcia's cell phone records to see if Brinton might be overstating his case. The short answer is this: not only was Brinton fair, but he might have even given Garcia the benefit of the doubt. Last Halloween, Garcia made 21 long distance calls on his Metro-issued cell phone. He made another 24 long distance calls 4 days later and another 29 on November 26. School officials say that nearly all of those calls are to family and friends, most of whom still live in California. Garcia, meanwhile, says that he only uses his cell phone when he's in the car.
He must be on the road a lot. Garcia also uses his cell phone to call his wife, Priscilla, as often as 10 times a day. If Desperately were to call his lovely girlfriend 10 times a day, he'd be looking for another job. (And quite possibly another girlfriend.)
To be certain, Garcia also used his cell phone for professional reasons, albeit sometimes in the service of his own career. In late April, after Garcia announced that he was a finalist for the top job in the Miami-Dade school district, he made at least 13 calls to Miami phone numbers in one day, nearly half of which were during normal business hours. Think about that for a moment. Garcia is using a phone that we pay for to apply for another job. This is not Watergate, but it's hardly in good form. It's not likely that Garcia would look kindly upon principals and teachers who used a Metro perk for a job search.
Brinton tells Desperately that he doesn't want to continue reporting about Garcia, but he continues to receive a steady stream of complaining e-mails from frustrated educators. For his part, Garcia doesn't seem too bothered by the roasting.
"Brinton gets carried away and as a result it helps me," Garcia tells Desperately. "I run into people at the grocery store or the movie theater and they are always complaining about him. I just think it's funny."
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