From July 9 to Oct 19 this year Esther Bauer reported to work as a receptionist at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare here, the regional center for a four-state operation.
Then she walked into the newsroom of her other employer, the Kansas City Times, and wrote a three-part series on the functioning of the bureaucracy and on her work, which she said often entailed typing personal correspondence for bosses and reading books for lack of anything better to do.
Other duties of her $32.16-a-day temporary position, Bauer reported, included:
Attending seminars lasting up to eight hours to learn how to fill out forms, including a form on permission to attend training courses.
Typing a letter from an HEW official to a bank president, plugging for a job for the official's brother.
Typing a two-sentence memo four times because a public affairs assistant was not satisfied with the "esthetic" merits of the memo.
Bauer apparently found no evidence of major wrongdoing in the 6,000-employe regional office, but that is no comfort to fuming HEW officials, who have attacked the series as "distortions and innuendos," accused the Times of unethical newspapering and queried the U.S. attorney's office about possible violations of the law by the reporter.
The newspaper concedes there is controversy surrounding a reporter's infiltration of a government agency, but defends Bauer's series by saying there would be no other way to obtain an accurate, undistorted picture of the day-to-day workings of an agency like HEW.
HEW officials say it is not that simple. Specifically, they contend Bauer was being paid by the Times for doing the same work for which she was being paid by the federal government.
Steven A. Glorioso, public afairs director of the HEW office, says that is a violation of the federal code, which prohibits a federal employe from being paid for his or her services as a federal employe by any source other than the U.S. government. The maximum penalty, a $5,000 fine and a year in prison, can apply both to the employe and the source of the outside income.
"She went ahead and took our money, and no offer of reimbursement has been made," Glorioso said.
Michael J. Davies, editor of the Times, acknowledged that Bauer collected about $2,000 in salary as an HEW employe and was permitted to keep it.
Glorioso also contends that Bauer took government documents, or copies of them.
"One letter to Lehr [George Lehr, former Jackson County executive, to whom Glorioso had written a personal letter, using Bauer to type it on government time] is absolutely verbatim. It's one thing to go out and say that in a three-month period she typed personal letters, and it's another thing to go out and print those letters," Glorioso said.
"We know that she monitored private conversations, personal and governmental," Glorioso charged, and he said this eavesdropping constituted an invasion of privacy.
Glorioso concedes he is not sure that the U.S. attorney's office will pursue the matter, and legal sources in the city have said that U.S. Attorney Ronald Reed is reluctant to get in a brouhaha with the media over the series.
HEW regional director Thomas J. Higgins has called a news conference Monday to respond to the articles, and until then HEW officials refuse to comment in detail on their content.
But it is clearly the principle of subterfuge that most irritates the bureaucrats.
"The most intellectually dishonest thing," says Glorioso, "was her portrayal of herself as an employe."
Davies said the Times gave the ethical implications considerable thought and decided to do the series anyway.
"We fretted long and hard about the ethics," he said. "We did not lie." He said Bauer stated her newspaper affiliation on her application (Bauer stated she was employed by the newspaper company from "April to present").
"There was no entrapment," Davies said. "She told them who she was, and she did the best job she could as a federal employe."
Glorioso said he does not intend to let the matter be dropped. He said HEW will seek return of the money paid Bauer.
"There is no question at all," he said, "that in her last month here she functioned primarily as an information-gatherer, rather than as an employe of HEW. You can't serve two masters."