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WUSA9 investigative reporter Russ Ptacek and a cameraman sat outside Ward 4 D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser‘s office at the Wilson Building for two and a half hours Tuesday, waiting to snag an interview with the Democratic mayoral nominee. But Bowser never came, and Ptacek, whom Washington City Paper dubbed D.C.’s most excitable newsman in a 2013 cover story, didn’t seem happy.
The newsman took to Twitter to tell his nearly 10,000 followers what was happening. He also went to her Georgia Avenue NW campaign headquarters with no luck, and took four selfies throughout the day, showing his dismay with the perceived stonewalling.
— Russ Ptacek, WUSA9 (@RussPtacek) April 22, 2014
A station producer tweeted a photo of Ptacek standing next to a large picture of the mayoral candidate, saying “this is as close as we got to @MurielBowser.” (This photo is not included in the selfie count.) The newsman also retweeted messages from his followers thanking him for holding government officials accountable. The Council is currently on Easter recess, but Ptacek says he saw every other member in the hallway during his stakeout.
“I’m very busy, and that’s a huge waste of time,” Ptacek says of chasing around Bowser for the day. “But I will do it if someone blows me off for two months.”
Ptacek has been working on an investigative piece about the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, of which Bowser sits on the board of directors. This specific story—-which is set to air tonight on the 11 p.m. news—-has to do with what Ptacek describes as six months of “missing” WMATA bus data for the last half of 2013. The stats, which WUSA9 staff pulled from the agency’s website, keep track of all the Metro bus times and are used to determine if buses are generally running on time or late.
He wants to know why those figures weren’t properly plugged in. He says he’s contacted the other 14 WMATA board members, and only one of them agreed to an interview. That board member said he wasn’t aware of the missing data, even though WMATA officials say they disclosed the issue at a board meeting.
“When it came down to report, they were like, ‘It’s not that the dog ate the homework, it’s that we lost the homework,'” Ptacek says. “We felt it was crucial to find out if [Bowser] was paying attention in the meeting and if she was paying attention to the report.”
Unsurprisingly, Bowser’s office did not want to comment on this story about them not commenting. WMATA spokesman Dan Stessel tells City Desk by email that “it is not that the data is ‘missing,’ but rather that it cannot be used to accurately calculate on-time performance during the latter half of 2013 because, due to a technical issue, buses that ran early were counted as on time when they should not have been.” Stessel says this lapse was publicly reported at a board meeting and that it didn’t affect NextBus or any other customer services. WMATA tried to see if the data could be corrected, but it couldn’t.
Ptacek—who is most known around D.C. for his taxi cab stings and raids of restaurants that violate health codes—defends his reporting tactics.
“As a last-ditch effort before the story aired, we went to places that we thought she was going,” he says. “I believe very strongly that city officials should be available to the media particularly when there are uncomfortable issues… It’s not like we pitched a tent.”
WUSA9 has been promoting the investigative report, and it’s still slated to air tonight, likely with no comment from Bowser. Ptacek, who recently ran stories on Metro’s speaker system and unsuccessfully tried to request documents to see how often Metro employees give customers the finger, says this is an important topic to his viewers, and he’ll keep pursuing it.
“It’s clearly a hot button issue, I know it’s important to our viewers, I know it’s important to people who use public transportation,” he says. “Is it the most important piece of journalism I’ve ever done in my life? No.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery