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Youth awards fall victim to apparent hoax

The Chase Youth Awards have honored young people of achievement and integrity for 23 years. But one of this year’s winners, “Pete Hazel,” doesn’t exist. Another, a Rogers High School teen, does exist but much of his story was fictionalized.

The nominations for the two winners were written by the same person, a Lewis and Clark High School student who completed them for a class assignment.

“We’re devastated that anyone would give us information that isn’t totally accurate, and in the future we’ll take extra measures to (make sure) that the stories are true reflections of the contributions of the deserving young people,” said Joanne Benham, director of the Spokane Regional Youth Department, which oversees the awards.

More than 1,000 nominations were received, and 30 winners were chosen by community judges, including “Hazel,” who won the Jim Chase “Asset Builder” adult award.

Mike LeaderCharge, the city’s youth department staffer who vetted the winners, said he grew concerned about the two winners when he couldn’t get in touch with the LC student who nominated them. Youth award organizers call the nominators the week before the awards ceremony to tell them their nominees have won.

LeaderCharge started making calls. In an e-mail, he explained: “When we contacted Gonzaga’s mentoring program where Pete supposedly was a student mentor, they weren’t able to locate any information on Pete Hazel being part of the mentoring program. Our friends at Gonzaga also checked the school roster and found out that there is no record of a Pete Hazel now or ever attending Gonzaga.”

When organizers discovered the information, they removed Hazel and gave the Asset Builder honor to community activist Kitara McClure. They withdrew the “Teen Courage” award that was to have gone to the Rogers High School student.

When LeaderCharge couldn’t track down the LC student, he enlisted the help of Dave Jackson, a teacher there who gave his students the assignment to write Chase Youth Awards nominating letters — an assignment he’s given for at least 10 years.

“The kid put together five great nomination letters,” Jackson said. “Most people do two. He’s a very solid writer in a variety of genres.”

Jackson said the student had been missing classes, so he contacted the student’s mother and told her it was urgent that her son contact the Chase Youth Awards organizers.

“I feel sad and disappointed,” Jackson said. “But the statistics say that tons of work (gets) turned in that is just not honest.” He said he’ll still assign Chase nominations next year, however, noting, “It’s a worthy thing for kids to do.”

LeaderCharge finally visited the Rogers student nominated for the Teen Courage award. The teen told LeaderCharge that he was friends with the LC student’s brother but that what was written about his home life was untrue.

The LC student did not respond to phone calls from The Spokesman-Review. A woman who answered his home phone identified herself as the student’s mother and said she knew nothing about the bogus nominating letters. Beyond that, she had no comment.

The Spokesman-Review received the list of winners in advance of the March 26 awards ceremony in order to publish the list the morning after the ceremony. The list, which included the bogus winners, ran in the newspaper March 27. In-depth stories on the winners, based on the nominating letters, appeared in Voices sections Thursday. LeaderCharge failed to notify the media about the bogus nominations, even though he discovered them two days before the awards ceremony.

Benham said the awards committee of the Chase Youth Commission will meet to brainstorm ways to better verify the nominating stories in the future. She said it’s unlikely that fake or fabricated nominees have emerged as winners in the past because that kind of information would have been discovered beforehand or surfaced after publication of the award winners’ stories.

The Spokesman-Review has long been one of the corporate sponsors of the Chase Youth Awards, which have been given out since 1986 in honor of former Spokane Mayor Jim Chase.

Shaun O’L. Higgins, director of sales and marketing for The Spokesman-Review, said, “We will be reviewing our ongoing commitment to the program and decide whether to support it in future years. We have to be satisfied this will not happen again.”