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‘Significant public interest’: Media experts defend KVPR's decision to name officer in Fresno police chief scandal

Fresno Police Department headquarters.
Joe Moore
KVPR File Photo
Fresno Police Department headquarters.

FRESNO, Calif. – Media experts defended KVPR after it drew the ire of the Fresno Police Officers Association (FPOA) last week for its decision to name Fresno Police Officer Jordan Wamhoff, who has alleged that he missed out on a promotion because Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama was having an affair with his wife.

KVPR was the first news outlet to make Wamhoff’s name public.

KVPR chose to publish Wamhoff’s name last Thursday after learning that he is also an elected official in Madera County, and appeared to have pressured at least one Fresno City Council member via text message into meeting a list of demands, including Balderrama’s resignation within 30 days and a flexible position with the police department for himself.

In exchange, read the text, Wamhoff would not take legal action against the city, with the exception of a worker’s compensation claim. The text message also stated that Wamhoff would sign a nondisclosure agreement, which, if executed, could have rendered the deal secret from the public.

Media experts say that such demands, coming from someone with a dual role as police officer and elected official, are matters of public interest.

“The public has a complete right to know all the facts in this case [and] the identity of all the people involved, including the officer, especially when he’s making demands,” said Jim Boren, executive director of Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust and a former editor of the Fresno Bee.

“These people — Chief Balderrama and the officer — are public officials on the public taxpayer rolls,” he said. “Their names are part of the public process.”

The morning after KVPR published its story about Wamhoff, the FPOA issued a press release to more than three dozen recipients, including The Fresno Bee, Univision, the Los Angeles Times and several media outlets in the region.

“KVPR’s lack of discretion and ethics in this matter is shameful,” read the release, which referred to Wamhoff as a “victim” who “KVPR had no interest in protecting.”

The FPOA’s statement thanked The Fresno Bee for “demonstrating integrity and ethics in choosing not to publish the victim officer’s name.”

Hours later, The Bee ran a story about the text message that named Wamhoff and corroborated KVPR’s reporting by confirming that other council members also received a similar text message.

Wamhoff, 38, has been with the Fresno Police Department since 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile. In 2022, he was elected to the Madera County Board of Supervisors, making him one of the most powerful elected officials in that county and a high-profile figure in the San Joaquin Valley.

He did not respond to multiple messages from KVPR seeking comment.

Wamhoff’s attorney, Brian Whelan, would not confirm or deny whether his client sent the text message with the list of demands.

Whelan told KVPR via email last week that his client would agree to an interview if KVPR signed an agreement not to name him and to grant him editorial control of the story.

KVPR declined, as agreeing to such terms would be a clear violation of policies practiced by NPR, its affiliate stations and most news outlets.

Non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, are unusual in American journalism. Chip Stewart, who teaches media law and ethics at Texas Christian University, said NDAs between journalists and sources or subjects run counter to the basic rules of news reporting.

“We’re not going to be complicit in covering up [people’s] misdeeds in exchange for access,” he said.

Whelan also told KVPR that naming Wamhoff would be unfair to the officer’s three minor children, a sentiment that was echoed in the FPOA’s press release.

“Publishing his name will subject these children to ridicule, bullying and immeasurable mental and emotional suffering,” it read.

Stewart said that using a person’s status as a parent of young children to avoid accountability would make public-interest news reporting virtually impossible.

“They’re in a position of public trust,” he said. “How on earth are you supposed to report on public misdeeds and corruption if they’re going to shame you with ‘What about their family?’”

“Police officers’ and government employees’ privacy rights take a back seat to the public’s right to know what their government is up to and how they’re spending their tax dollars,” Stewart added. “If there’s a possibility of corruption, malfeasance or government waste or fraud, the people have a right to know so they can do something about it in the next election.”

Allegations against Balderrama began to surface publicly in early June, after the city announced it had launched an “administrative investigation” related to an “inappropriate off-duty relationship he was involved in with a non-city employee.”

The city attorney’s office said it had retained an independent investigator to determine whether Balderrama violated department policy, but did not provide further details.

After the investigation was announced, Balderrama sent a letter to the police department.

“I own my mistakes, they are mine and mine alone to bear, and I will pay for those mistakes for the rest of my life,” he wrote.

Balderrama, who was put on paid leave, declined to comment for this story.

A high-ranking city official who showed KVPR the text message said the investigation has mainly focused on whether Balderrama abused his power by passing Wamhoff over for a promotion.

The source, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution and lack of authorization to discuss the case, told KVPR that the investigation is almost complete, and will likely determine that Balderrama did not abuse his power or violate city policy.

The city has not made any announcements about the investigation.

This story was produced with support from the California Newsroom, a collaboration of public media outlets throughout the state, with NPR as its national partner. 

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is KVPR's News Director. Prior to joining the station's news department in 2022, he was a reporter for PBS NewsHour and The Fresno Bee.
Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.