In this week's Scene, James Nix has the story of Davidson County Clerk John Arriola's spirited but vain attempt to pre-empt NewsChannel5 investigative reporter Phil Williams' piece regarding questionable practices at Arriola's office, most notably the mandatory $40 "gratuity" (ahem) demanded — er, I mean, accepted by the county clerk to perform marriages:
The county clerk stepped out in front of the anticipated WTVF story in an attempt to fend off its expected allegations. The most damaging of these Tuesday night was that Arriola's office charged couples $40 to perform wedding ceremonies — a sum that was treated on camera by staffers as if it were a fee, not the optional gratuity specified by law.
Worse, Williams alleged the cash-only "gratuity" went straight into Arriola's pocket, generating what the story estimated at more than $30,000 a year on top of his six-digit salary. On camera, Arriola met the reporter's questions with a deer-in-the-high-beams expression and stammered responses that showed he was right to dread the newscast.
As we mentioned on Pith Tuesday morning, Arriola sent out a 14-page press release in advance of Williams' damning report, which aired Tuesday night. Arriola suggested the report was nothing more than an attempt "to attract viewers and increase ratings by elevating the policies and procedures [of Arriola's office] to the level of illegality." Though Arriola's defensive stance surely seemed to suggest some level of wrongdoing, we were prepared to acknowledge the possibility that an investigative television news report might attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill.
But after watching Tuesday night's report, I can't possibly see how the guy can hold onto his job. On our previous post on the subject, some commenters seemed to suggest that Williams' reports are "gotcha" journalism, but my hat's off to the man on this one. I figure Arriola has got to go, because on the evidence of the piece, a viewer would likely conclude one of the following two scenarios must be true: Either Arriola never passed 10th-grade English and honestly doesn't know what "gratuity" means, or he's a lying scoundrel. I'm leaning toward the latter, but who knows?
A second NewsChannel5 report on Arriola airs tonight. Stay tuned! And if you can't watch the above video, the pertinent highlights are transcribed below:
NewsChannel5: "There's an attorney general opinion that says you cannot charge a fee for performing wedding ceremonies."
Arriola: "And that's why it's a gratuity."
NewsChannel5: "So you'd say 'this will cost you $40?'"
NewsChannel5: "Is that a gratuity, or is that a fee?"
Arriola: "It's a gratuity. I call it a gratuity."...
Arriola: "I see it as part of my responsibility and a part of the job."
NewsChannel5: "If it's part of your job, why charge extra for it?"
Arriola: "If there is a group, a family that wants to come in and they want to be married at this time, then the state law says you can charge that gratuity."
NewsChannel5: "State law says you can accept a gratuity, it doesn't say you can charge a fee."
Arriola: "And that's what we need to do, we need to accept, and I'm open to accept, I'll be open to accepting that gratuity."