One old friend put a bullet in his head July 27. His blood splashed the lobby of the Miami Herald, a newspaper I once regarded as holy. Another acquaintance, a guy who does the same sort of gig I do, was fired over the incident.
Last Thursday was a disquieting day, to say the least. I'm a Miami native, and I have always loved the city's panache, its ability to embrace the bizarre. In this case, the unsavory flip side of those qualities is all too apparent.
I met Arthur Teele in the early 1980s. He was an anomaly for the time, a black Republican, Ronald Reagan's chief of the Urban Mass Transit Administration. He helped me with one of my best-ever stories, exposing a $30 billion real estate scam disguised as a plan to build a high-speed rail line in Florida. My articles played a big role in knocking the wheels off the scheme. Teele gave me critical information, some of it highly confidential, and invaluable insight.
A few months later, we would go see a Rolling Stones concert together. Teele was at his peak, as adept at his political moves as Mick Jagger was on stage that evening. We often had lunch or dinner until I left Miami in 1990. He merited -- until his suicide -- a place in my short list of "golden sources."
Teele was the archetype of the insider confidant. He often called me with tips, he could get the unlisted phone numbers of the mighty. He offered me his assistance more than a few times by making introductions to congressional leaders and administration officials.
The GOP label was a perennial topic of my conversations with him. He wasn't radically conservative; he just didn't like being categorized, as most black leaders are, as a Democrat. Reagan had made his career, and Teele was appreciative.
Teele, who served on the Miami-Dade County Commission and later the Miami City Commission, clearly had flaws. It was the "power corrupts" stuff. He had an eye for ladies and, if recent reports are to be believed, maybe for transvestite lads as well.
On the day Teele killed himself, the alternative paper Miami New Times ran a lengthy story detailing the politician's tawdry dealings with drug kingpins, hookers and crooked businessmen. Teele faced both state and federal corruption charges. He had been besieged with probes and allegations for years, and had been convicted of verbally assaulting a police officer who was tailing him in the corruption investigations. Gov. Jeb Bush had booted Teele from his Miami Commission post.
But Teele had at least one media defender, or at least one skeptic about many of the allegations -- Jim DeFede, a longtime New Times columnist who three years ago went over to the Dark Side, the Herald. DeFede, an intensely thorough reporter, had found flaws in many of the accusations.
The second-to-last time I spoke with Teele was just prior to the 2003 trade summit in Miami, an event marred by police riots, which Teele predicted to me would happen.
Teele a year later -- I had called to ask about a mass transit issue relating to Dade's MetroRail -- alluded to a conspiracy involving Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, the Herald, and state and federal prosecutors. He had blown the whistle on a city land giveaway, Teele told me, and the power elite wanted to punish him. Teele was clearly distraught and was shopping his spin to all who would listen.
DeFede told reporters that in one of Teele's last phone calls, he had dejectedly mused: "'Who did I piss off in this town?'"
Were people out to get Teele? Well, we're talking about Miami, a city whose toxic lack of public ethics is the stuff of Carl Hiaasen novels, movies and Miami Vice reruns. The Herald, then-State Attorney Janet Reno and her successor, Kathy Rundle, brought down another politician, Joe Gersten, who in all likelihood was guilty mostly of offending the potentates in Babylon on Biscayne Bay. I exposed a lot of scum on that one (see www.johnsugg.com/2001/06/index.html), and Teele's tale sounded eerily familiar.
Whether Teele was being hounded or not, my belief is that he had caved in. Desperate for money, deep in debt, he was willing to be bought. For a man of such soaring talent and potential, the few hundred thousand dollars he is alleged to have taken in graft and bribes was a cheap price. But I guess Teele tossed in his soul as a bonus.
DeFede had chronicled Teele's travails more and better than anyone else. When the politician descended into the deepest despair, he walked a few blocks from his high-rise home to the Herald and asked for the columnist. Teele's last act before pulling the trigger was to request a security guard to give a message to DeFede -- to tell Teele's wife her husband loved her.
DeFede a little earlier had taped a rambling conversation with Teele. "'I'm dead in the water,'" DeFede told reporters Teele had said. It turned out to be an epitaph.
In Florida, taping a phone call without both parties' consent is against the law. In other states, Georgia, for example, only one-party consent is required. DeFede confessed to his bosses. He was contrite and expected a reprimand, maybe even a suspension.
Instead, the Herald opted for what DeFede called the "death penalty." He was fired.
The double, gut-wrenching tragedy -- a political giant dead on the Herald's floor and one of the paper's most firebrand columnists ousted -- has convulsed Miami and journalism circles. Hundreds of journalists, many like me, Herald alums, have signed a petition to reinstate DeFede.
The taping allegation is a bogus rap. The events were an incredibly intense and emotional drama. DeFede acted hastily and under pressure. He probably erred. But if the Herald fired every reporter who had surreptitiously taped a call, the paper would have been starved for stories over the years. I confess to the offense while there.
More important, there's good reason to believe that the Herald's parent, Knight Ridder, might have been looking for a reason to ax DeFede. He had pilloried many of the Herald bosses' favorite power brokers in Miami. And, reflecting his alternative journalism roots at New Times, DeFede wasn't afraid to criticize the Herald or corporate media.
The DeFede petition, instigated by Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times and Charles Savage of the Boston Globe (both former reporters at the Herald), states:
"We are concerned that Jim's willingness in the past to offend powerful figures in Miami and, at times, his own employers, may have contributed to the hasty decision to fire him. We believe that Jim's determination to be a voice for the poor and powerless in Miami makes him an asset to the community and to the Herald, even if his words may at times make some people uncomfortable."
Among DeFede's more biting comments was a 2003 Herald column -- true not only of his employer but of the media in general -- in which he wrote that "Knight Ridder has cut staffing at its newspapers across the country, and the Herald is no exception. As a result, segments of our society go uncovered."
That column, as well as all of DeFede's other writing for the Herald, was removed from the newspaper's website after his firing. Knight Ridder doesn't give the condemned his last words. Early last Friday, Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler told me he was unaware DeFede's columns had been erased. "I'll check and reverse the decision if necessary," Fiedler vowed. Friday evening, DeFede's work was still blocked.
The truth is that the Herald and Knight Ridder have abandoned greatness and are now pants-wetting scared of controversy. They're not unique. The betrayal of communities and readers in the name of obscene profits is what the media are all about nowadays.
DeFede will become a media hero, rightfully so. The Herald will be scorned. Teele will become a morality lesson.
And I am very sad today.
The New Times article that was published just prior to Art Teele's suicide is at: www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/2004-12-23/news/metro.html.
Information on Jim DeFede, including to the petition to have him reinstated, can be found at: www.journalistsfordefede.blogspot.com/.
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