Raymond A. Peck Jr. says he was just trying to demonstrate the open door policy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the two out-of-town reporters unwittingly involved in the Peck demonstration were not amused.
It all began last week when two reporters from the Detroit Free Press were discovered skulking about the agency. And then, over the weekend, they were discovered visiting some NHTSA employes at their homes.
The result of all this, according to NHTSA Administrator Peck was an apparent attempt to put the agency in a bad light.
To "prove the openness" of his office to the two reporters, Peck set aside a special telephone and a special time Tuesday for agency employes to call the visiting sleuths.
The phone was on Peck's desk. The calling time, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., coincided with the time Free Press reporters Marcia Stepanek and Stephen Franklin were scheduled to interview Peck in his office.
Tuesday morning, without the knowledge of the reporters, Peck circulated a memo to "all employes" of the agency .
"Two out-of-town reporters have spent the last week in the building, with the apparent purpose of drawing inferences unfavorable to the agency, its management and the performance of its professional staff," Peck said in the memo. "Some of you have even been visited in your homes over the weekend or at night for this purpose.
"I appreciate the number of you, at all different levels, who have come to me or your supervisors to express dismay and resentment. I sympathize with your concerns and appreciate your views," Peck said in the memo.
However, he said, "it is the agency's policy that our work . . . be conducted in the most open manner consistent with our legal obligations to protect proprietary information and the details of our law enforcement activities."
To that end, he said in the memo: "I am making an unpublished telephone number in my office available to these reporters from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today. That number is 472-6599. During that period, no one except the reporters will answer that telephone, and no agency personnel will overhear any discussion.
"Anyone calling during this period should be prepared to give their names to the reporters, but I am sure any requests for confidentiality which you make will be respected," Peck said. He added that the reporters "have not previously been informed of the arrangement."
Peck did not tell his employes that he, his secretary and agency spokesman Richard Burdette also would be in the office with reporters Stepanek and Franklin. But Peck said yesterday that the omission did not constitute a breach of confidence.
"Confidentiality was guaranteed," he said, insisting that his sole purpose was to prove to Stepanek, Franklin and NHTSA employes "that my door is open." Peck said he is even considering leaving the special line intact so that employes "can call me directly."
But he conceded that his demonstration Tuesday was a failure. "They resented it. They were furious," he said of the reporters, whom he criticized for the weekend and late night visits to members of his staff. "They were trying to do a Woodward and Bernstein. It was bush-league stuff," Peck said.
For their part, the Free Press reporters said they were taken aback by Peck's approach to public relations. "It was a complete surprise," said Stepanek, who said Peck's phone began "ringing frequently" during the interview. " 'I think that's for you,' " she quoted Peck as saying about the ringing phone.
"We asked him what was going on. Then he handed us the memo . . .If his motivation was to intimidate people who wanted to speak to us, we find that abhorrent. We thought it was completely unusual behavior for an agency head," Stepanek said.