It was about this time last year that I got a phone call from a number that I didn’t recognize while I was getting my oil changed. Naturally, I didn’t answer, but they left a voice mail. Intrigued and with nothing better to do while I waited for my car to get its oil changed, I listened to the voice mail. It was from a man named James Hernandez working on a documentary on the McDonalds/Monopoly fraud scheme for HBO and he had been told I had an interesting story to tell.
Hmmm. Did some PR flack in Greenville, South Carolina have something to do with a scheme where a group of people worked to defraud the wildly popular contest by selling the winning pieces to friends and family with the promise of getting some of the prize money back?
Yes, I did.
My mind flashed back to late Spring 2001. I was 24 and working as the crime and courts reporter for the Greenville News. As I got to my cubicle on a Monday morning, I saw some papers stapled together on my chair. Flipping it over, I saw the FBI logo and figured it was something to do with an arrest. At the time, the FBI and US Attorneys’ Office would fax over press releases on cases. I silently cursed because this fax had been likely sitting on my desk all weekend and the News had likely missed a story. Now, it didn’t dawn on me that I didn’t see any major stories from the local TV stations over the weekend, but it should have. That’s because after about three paragraphs, I realized this was information on an active investigation. I flipped through some of the pages. There were surveillance notes, transcripts of calls, plans for more surveillance and the like. This wasn’t a press release. I spun in around in my chair and asked the City Editor David Dykes, his desk was cattycorner to me, if he knew where this had come from? He said he gotten it off of the fax and put it there. I asked if he had looked at it, he said no because when he saw the FBI logo he figured it was something for me and I could handle it. But Dykes was sharp. This is a guy who once interviewed Hells Angels out in the wilds of Arizona. He could now tell something was up likely based on my tone. He might have even asked me if it was a good story. I said something to the effect of “David, I don’t think we are supposed to have this. It looks like an active investigation.” I handed him the stack, and he got probably as far as I did, before his eyes widened. “You’re right, were not supposed to have this.”
Back to the oil change place. I dialed up the California number. A man answered. I said I was John Boyanoski and was returning his call. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked if I remembered anything about the McDonald’s case. I said I remember covering it and how a good portion of it centered on the Upstate and that was the part I wrote the most. The national stuff was foggy. He then asked his real question. Was I the reporter who got a mistaken fax about the case?
We had been huddled in the managing editor’s office for about 30 minutes. It was David, myself and the managing editor, Chris Weston. Another editor named Bob Paslay was there as well. I wish I could remember all of the details, but I knew I was in over my head. I was two years out of school and these three had about 70 years of experience combined. It was a calm meeting as we talked about what options we had with this document. Do we run with it? If we did, what would we say? What would the story look like? I, of course, being the kid, wanted to run it. The FBI was actively investigating the fraud of the McDonald’s/Monopoly game. Everyone played this game! That was a story. Weston overruled me and said it wasn’t a story. We hadn’t found the information on our own. It was a complete fluke that the story had fallen in my lap. Publishing the story served no purpose. He was right. No doubt about it. The longer it has been, the more I am sure of it. But back in 2001, I was…not mad…but annoyed. My ego was getting ahead of me. I felt this was going to make me famous. But Weston was right. At some point in the discussion, it was decided that Weston would call the FBI and let them know we had this vital document. Now, Weston was one of the most respected writer/editors in South Carolina, and when he wanted to he could make go so low that it made Charles Bronson sound like he was singing Ave Maria. He didn’t make courtesy calls so when he called the local FBI office and said in that voice of doom that he had this document, well I can’t imagine the shock. Paslay said he had wished he could have seen people flying in ten different directions. I am not privy to all of the details of the call, but the general agreement was we were going to be giving the document and the News would get some kind of heads up when everything went down. Not an exclusive story, but we would get some more access. On one condition, that wouldn’t tell anyone about the wayward fax. No stories. Nothing.
Back to the oil change place. Mistaken fax? What do you mean? Hernandez said the FBI had told them they had mistakenly faxed me the information? I was back in PR flack guy mode, and asked who at the FBI. He gave me a name. I went into spin mode, “I’m going to need to check some things and get back to you.” He said sure, and that was understandable. Now, the agents I knew 20 years ago were long since retired. But I did have the name of the agent who had told Hernandez about the case. I also googled him to make sure he was a real agent. Again, reporter turned PR flack makes to touch his bases. I called him, left a message. Maybe an hour later he calls back. I tell him I wanted to make sure it is ok that I tell the fax story. Aside from the three editors, I doubt I had ever discussed this story outside of maybe 10 people. And most of them worked at the newspaper with me. It wasn’t quite a vow of silence on my part, but my wife didn’t even know the story. The agent, God bless him, kind of laughed. He said he appreciated my candor, but it had been almost two decades. I could tell my story. I want to say it was within the next few days that I scheduled the HBO interview.
Now again, being a PR flack, it’s not unusual for a reporter or a camera crew to be at our office. Comes with the territory. I told my staff I was being interviewed by HBO in the morning, and if they listened, they were going to hear a hilarious story from their boss’s past. All would I tell them.
Ever been interviewed by a full HBO crew? It’s a lot more than a reporter, a photog and a producer. There were no less than 20 people running cables into our office that morning. They came in four different vehicles including what looked like a satellite truck that took up most of our parking area. We did about four hours of interviews in various places in my office. They asked a lot of the same questions. They said that was normal, but I am sure it was because I flubbing so much. At one point, they asked me if I any of my old notes from that time? I laughed. Those notes were long gone. As was the building I wrote them in.
Sometime later that day, two FBI agents came by to pick up the fax papers from Weston. I was at lunch. I really don’t think I wanted to see it. Just before they got there, Paslay unstapled the stack of papers because in his mind he wanted to show that we hadn’t been making copies. Then Weston pointed out the tiny holes so he stapled them back together. The agents came, thanked Weston and left. They were likely gone no more than five minutes…not enough time to even get back to the field office at the 101 North Main tower and asked for the copies. Weston said there were no copies. The FBI agents said it was clear the documents had been stapled, undone and restapled. The FBI may have messed up a fax, but they knew how to count staples.
But anyway, back to last week. I had kind of forgotten about the interview after a while. I hate to say, I hadn’t even noticed the previews for McMillions. My wife was sick most of Sunday and Monday, so I was solo parent for about 48 hours. When I went to be early Monday night, I had no idea that my smiling visage was being broadcast on HBO and streamed to millions of others. Woke up Tuesday confused when I saw that people had posted to my Facebook wall. Huh, what? At first, I thought there had been a preview. Nope, the real thing. That was kind of cool. Another Forest Gump moment. Though, one thing that I have never gotten a straight answer on. Who sent the fax? I assumed early on that it was sent from Greenville by accident. Like I wrote earlier, we got faxes all the time from them. Someone hit the wrong button? But it had come from the Florida office. A theory the documentary team had was an agent on the case had a similar name as someone who had once worked at the Greenville News. When the fax was sent, that person’s name was added and it came to the News. Still not sure about it.
And those are the facts.