Conflict of Interest Blooming at WQCS Radio

Tania Ortega-Cowan, right, with Eric Flowers at a Sheriff campaign function (via Facebook)

Indian River County Sheriff’s Major Eric Flowers has landed a respected local journalist in a tough spot by hiring her for his political campaign to take over the agency he now works for.

As the third in command in the sheriff’s office, Flowers is the agency’s public information officer. The position makes him the de-facto face of the agency and given what critics say is an unfair advantage in millions of dollars worth of free media appearances on local television, radio and newspapers.

After we revealed last week that Flowers is spending some of his sheriff’s office taxpayer time to manage the social media accounts of local radio host Rhett Palmer, we have learned Flowers has hired a radio reporter from an NPR affiliate to work occasionally on his political aspirations, thus creating a potential conflict of interest for her and her station.

Tania Ortega-Cowan, a well-known journalist at the Fort Pierce-based WQCS, has not only been paid for computer work by Flowers’ campaign, she and her company, Chunky Monkey Creative, have made in-kind contributions in the form of unpaid services, according to campaign finance reports.

WQCS, by the way, is the purveyor of fine classical music and National Public Radio news for a territory that extends from Palm Beach Gardens to Melbourne, Florida. Ortega-Cowan’s work appears during NPR’s Morning Edition and the afternoon drive-time show, All Things Considered. At times, Ortega-Cowan’s stories run on other NPR affiliates throughout Florida.

NPR’s creed reads: “We take pride in our craft. Our journalism is as accurate, fair and complete as possible. Our journalists conduct their work with honesty and respect, and they strive to be both independent and impartial in their efforts. Our methods are transparent, and we will be accountable for all we do.”

With Ortega-Cowan occasionally wearing Flowers campaign tee-shirts in Facebook photos, can listeners trust WQCS’ coverage of Indian River County politics?

According to WQCS archives, Ortega-Cowan used Flowers’ voice in two stories that aired on the station this year. In January, she interviewed Flowers about a dropbox for expired medicine set up in the lobby of the sheriff’s headquarters. Two months later, Flowers announced his candidacy and Ortega-Cowan’s company performed graphic work for the campaign and received $265.

Chunky Monkey Creative has been paid in excess of $1,500 by Flowers’ campaign and performed $1,000 worth of free work while Ortega-Cowan personally contributed $1,000 to Flowers’ effort in free work and was paid $240.

Combined, the free work from her and her company has made Ortega-Cowan a major contributor to Flowers’ campaign, according to Indian River County elections records.

In comparison, billionaire Amway heir, Richard DeVos Jr., husband of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, only gave Flowers $1,000, cash.

In September, Ortega-Cowan used sheriff candidate Flowers’ voice on a story about the Bahamas hurricane relief efforts when she could’ve talked to many other public officials who are not campaigning for an elected position.

There are three other candidates for sheriff: Indian River Shores Public Safety Chief Rich Rosell, who has raised the second-most money; former Indian River County Sheriff’s deputy Chuck Kirby; and Fellsmere Police Chief Keith Touchberry. None of the three has appeared in any of Ortega-Cowan’s reporting, according to WQCS archives.

We reached out to Ortega-Cowan by phone, text and email, and she maintained radio silence until she fired off a short email reminding us Flowers is the sheriff’s office spokesman and her January story was produced “before he even became a candidate.”

Media leaders like her boss at WQCS, Station Manager Chris Puorro, usually do not take kindly to internal political strife.

In many newsrooms, bosses allow reporters to work side gigs only if they are approved to do so. Puorro said he didn’t know about Ortega-Cowan’s side arrangement and told her to quit covering Flowers and the sheriff’s office.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he wrote in a statement. “At WQCS, integrity and impartiality in our news coverage is paramount.  A single instance in an article about Bahamian hurricane relief authored by Ms. Ortega-Cowan (September 14, 2019) quoted Major Flowers in his official capacity as IRCSO Public Information Officer. We’ve addressed the issue with Ms. Ortega-Cowan, and moving forward she will no longer be involved with any reporting involving Major Flowers or IRCSO.”

Flowers’ campaign didn’t respond to several attempts to reach him and failed to answer our questions about Ortega-Cowan, including why in the world he would allow her integrity as a reporter to be questioned in exchange for a few thousand dollars’ worth of in-kind campaign contributions.