It was July 1 when a Baltimore Sun reporter spotted a production crew filming an apron-clad Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake outside City Hall.
When asked where the crew was from, a member said The Food Network.
Uh-oh. Someone had slipped. The mayor and her staff declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement with a company they could not disclose.
A mystery? The mayor? The Food Network?
No reporter worth his salt could resist that scent of a story — or the opportunity to indulge in a smorgasbord of lame puns.
Some basic online reporting revealed that "Chopped" was the only Food Network show casting for "civil servants." Still, no one connected with the show or the network would confirm the mayor's participation.
So The Sun submitted a request under the state Public Information Act asking for any correspondence, travel schedules and expense reports related to the mayor's office and the Food Network, "Chopped" or anyone associated with either.
It took only three months, but the lame-duck Democrat finally released 212 pages of documents.
While that may sound like a generous helping (OK, last one), it's not. Nearly every page was covered in line after line of black ink. City lawyers said the redactions protect proprietary commercial information and sensitive medical details associated with a city employee (not the mayor).
Still, the documents were enough to confirm the involvement of the Food Network and "Chopped."
And we gleaned some additional confirmation and new information by reading between the (blacked-out) lines.
Two production employees are identified as "Chopped" casting officials. And when reached by telephone, they suggested a reporter call the public relations office "for 'Chopped' … er … The Food Network." No need to name names, lest someone get in trouble over our persistence. The show is not likely to air until 2017, months after Rawlings-Blake leaves office in December.
The mayor and some staff enjoyed two rooms with king-sized beds at The Standard, High Line hotel in Manhattan, apparently on Sunday, June 19. The check-in and check-out dates were blacked out.
The mayor sought approval from the city's ethics panel and is not getting paid for her work, the records indicate. An unnamed charity is receiving a $2,000 donation for her appearance. A City Hall source says the money will go to YouthWorks, a jobs program in the mayor's office.
Again, officials demanded anonymity because of a clause in their agreement — a line that wasn't blacked out:
"Please keep in mind that Food Network has complete authority and may change … [blacked-out section] … although you have been given a … [blacked out section] …," a network employee writes in an email. "Once you are given your … [blacked-out section] … if you would like to do any interviews, social media or local press, you must first reach out to our Public Relations Department for language, timing, details, etc. Until then, everything must still remain confidential. Failure to comply with these rules is a breach of contract."
No wonder the mayor's spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, went straight to the company minutes after The Sun inquired about the filming.
"I was just contacted by a Baltimore Sun reporter who evidently was in City Hall for another reason and saw the film crew in front of the building," McCarthy wrote in a July 1 email. "I would not confirm that it was the Food Network (which he said I didn't need to because the crew did that). The only thing I would say on the record was that any interaction by the mayor was part of her duties as mayor."
A production official replied: "Thanks for letting me know, I've passed on this information to the executives. And please extend my thanks to the mayor for not answering his requests and keeping this quiet. I really appreciate it!"