Questions over ethics and accountability dominated the final televised Wichita mayoral debate this week, as candidates sparred over well-trod issues of police officer discipline, economic development incentives and juvenile justice.
But a new campaign issue surfaced when Mayor Brandon Whipple accused mayoral candidate Lily Wu of using her position as a television news reporter to promote her boyfriend’s family on Wichita’s two largest local news stations without disclosing the potential conflict of interest.
While at KAKE and KWCH, Wu covered stories on the Steve Clark YMCA and an 8-foot-tall bronze Wu Shock sculpture donated to Wichita State University by Steve Clark. She was a member of the Steve Clark YMCA’s board of directors and had been in a longtime relationship with Clark’s son and business partner, Stephen Clark II. She did not disclose those ties in her reporting, news archives show.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code, an industry-standard for news reporters, says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
“How can voters trust you will know how to recognize a conflict of interest as mayor?” Whipple asked Wu during Tuesday night’s televised debate on KAKE, Wu’s former station.
In response, Wu defended her coverage while acknowledging she covered those stories to “uplift” the YMCA and Clark’s philanthropy. She pledged not to use the office of mayor to give preferential treatment to the Clark family.
“I’m proud to say that the Clark family is a very philanthropic family,” Wu said. “The stories that I have covered as a reporter have been to uplift the YMCA as well as a donation to WSU.”
Wu then tried to turn the attention back on Whipple’s ethics as mayor.
“I’m not the first person to violate the ethics board that you created, mayor,” Wu said. “The first violator of that very first ethics board is our own mayor, because he got into a fight with a police officer during a neighborhood cleanup.”
Wu’s campaign and outside groups supporting her have been hammering Whipple for weeks over his violation of an ethics policy last year that was one of his top initiatives during his term.
Wu said Whipple made “the mayor’s office look like a joke” for his interaction with a police officer at a neighborhood cleanup event last fall that was captured on the officer’s body camera.
The officer refused to let Whipple enter the cleanup after the mayor entered the wrong entrance and appeared to be trying to skip ahead in line. Whipple violated the city’s ethics code by using his access to the city manager to threaten to file a complaint against the officer. In the aftermath of the exchange, Whipple accused the officer of yelling at him and acting inappropriately but did not file a complaint against him. Whipple later apologized and said he’s embarrassed by his actions. He was ordered to undergo ethics training for the violation.
“What I learned is basically to be humble and show more grace. . . . And I’m glad that we’re able to utilize the ethics board to get people like myself back on track.”
Wu said she would not make those types of mistakes as mayor.
“As mayor, I will be someone that will make you proud and will not embarrass you,” Wu said.
Wu’s line of attack echoed criticisms by the Fraternal Order of Police, Wichita Chamber PAC and Americans for Prosperity in recent weeks. They have pointed voters to the body camera video in campaign mailers, text messages and a politically charged news conference at the police union headquarters.
On Tuesday, Whipple called Wu’s previously undisclosed conflict of interest a violation of journalistic ethics and said it would have been a violation of the city’s ethics policy if she would have acted similarly as mayor.
“You violated journalistic ethics when you promoted someone that you said you need to actually abstain from voting on (if elected) without disclosing that to the public. . . . In the past, you were happy to promote your family’s interests. And you know, we just hope you don’t do it as mayor because you would be in violation of the ethics policy that I created.”
The City Council’s ethics policy directs city board members to avoid conflicts of interest “by refraining from participating in decisions or being involved in transactions in which officials, their relatives, or business entity have an interest.”
If the conflict of interest is unavoidable, the city board member must disclose the association.
“I can tell you also that if at any point, any of the entities by Clarks would come before me,” Wu said during the debate. “I would abstain and would not be voting because I believe in ethics. . . . So I want to be clear that I will not provide any preferential treatment to any of my family, friends or supporters, because that is the type of ethics that you deserve.”
The stories showcase Steve Clark’s role in bringing an 8-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Wichita State’s mascot to the YMCA on WSU’s campus.
Wu’s KAKE story celebrates Clark for lending his “time, talent and treasures” to the YMCA and WSU. The KWCH story goes into the backstory of how the sculpture is a memorial for Clark’s late wife and Wu’s boyfriend’s mother, Judy Clark.
“Through Clark’s generosity, the Shocker community receives this gift,” Wu says at the end of the 3-minute “Kansas Proud” segment in September 2020.
KAKE General Manager Mike Rajewski said the station has a policy on conflicts of interest but declined to say whether he believed Wu violated it when she was a reporter. He isn’t a journalist by trade, so he leaves decisions about who covers what to the news management team, he said.
“As far as the station policy on conflicts of interest, the policy is to avoid it at all times,” Rajewski said.
“It was a few years ago, I guess, that this happened,” Rajewski said. “I might submit to you that both things could be true — that maybe there was a conflict of interest but did she cover the story just because it was a relation of hers? Or were they sitting around in the news meeting and they said, ‘Hey, Lily, this is your story. Today you need to go cover this.’”
“It’s a perspective thing,” Rajewski said. “Could one make the case that it was probably — and maybe not her bad judgment but maybe bad judgment on the news management at that station to send her on that story? Or if she proposed covering that story, that’s very different.”
Asked whether she pitched story ideas related to the Clarks’ philanthropy in news meetings or was assigned them by a superiors, Wu did not respond directly.
“Both of these stories that the mayor referenced were stories that were pitched in an editorial meeting and I was able to report on,” Wu said in a written statement to The Eagle. “As you know, we get news releases and alerts on many of these types of stories from nonprofits.”
KWCH’s general manager did not respond to a request for comment.
Clark did not immediately respond to questions Thursday. He has previously told The Eagle he does not expect any preferential treatment from Wu. He said he hasn’t done business with the city since 2013, when the City Council voted to award the River Vista project to a group of developers that included major campaign donors after he had been working on the project for years and invested $200,000 in the planning of the project.
Clark is a Wichita State graduate, a former member of the Kansas Board of Regents and a longtime donor to the university. He was the chair of the search committees that recommended the hiring of John Bardo, the mind behind WSU’s Innovation Campus, and Jay Golden.