By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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A press conference on the steps of Hialeah City Hall. An angry citizen railing against the mayor. Nothing remarkable in a town that has historically raised political intrigue to spectacular heights. But this press conference is unique even for Hialeah. Here under the palms on March 10, a journalist in a plaid sports shirt is holding a press conference for seven other journalists.
"My name is Jose Luis Sanchez, Jr.," the bearded, prematurely gray-haired reporter begins in Spanish, reading from a four-page, hand-printed statement. Five microphones and two videocameras move in. "I have come here today to denounce what I consider to be the capitulation of El Nuevo Herald to the political pressure exerted by the mayor of Hialeah, Raul Martinez."
Up until late February Sanchez was a staff writer for El Nuevo Herald assigned to cover Hialeah, where he also lives. Now Sanchez has become what he used to write about: another voice protesting alleged corruption at city hall, another topic circulating within Hialeah's hyperactive political grapevine.
After Martinez expressed displeasure with Sanchez's work and after he was suspended by his editors, the reporter resigned on March 5 and decided it was time to make some news himself. He contacted all of Miami's major Spanish- and English-language broadcast and print media (including his former employer). He promised to describe how El Nuevo management allegedly allowed the Hialeah mayor to influence newsroom decisions, to the point where, as Sanchez contends in his written statement, "Martinez demanded, as he had personally told me he would, that I be removed as the Hialeah reporter." (As an extra, and largely unrelated, incentive to attend the press conference, Sanchez also said he would discuss how stories about Cuba and the exile community were distorted and suppressed by "leftist" El Nuevo editors.) Neither El Nuevo nor the Miami Herald sent reporters, nor did any English-language television stations, although Spanish-language media attended in force.
"On February 27," Sanchez's statement continues, "the director of El Nuevo Herald, Miss Barbara Gutierrez, and the news director, Mr. Roberto Fabricio, subjected me to a brutal interrogation, at the end of which they told me they were forbidding me, effective immediately, to cover any news relating to Hialeah. Since they never gave me any coherent reason to justify that immoral and arbitrary censorship, I decided to resign."
"Jose Luis!" the reporters call out after patiently recording Sanchez's statement. One asks, "Was your coverage of Hialeah fair?"
"Hard-hitting, but fair," he answers.
It's safe to say that there's a lack of consensus about Sanchez's self-assessment. Complaints about his professional conduct abound from numerous Hialeah politicians and bureaucrats, and even some fellow reporters, although hardly any of the complainers wanted their names published. Frances Robles, the Miami Herald's police reporter with whom Sanchez worked before taking on Hialeah in August 1996, did offer this: "In fairness to Jose Luis, he and I had never had a problem with each other, and we worked well together. However, at every police agency I went to I'd have to answer the question, 'Who is this guy and what is his problem?' He just seems to have a lot of problems with people." Sanchez admits not everyone in his newsroom liked him. "I wasn't in good with those people [at the Herald and El Nuevo Herald]," he says. "I'm arrogant and abrasive, and I was always questioning their decisions."
Sanchez has won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Publications during his two years at El Nuevo Herald. But his aggressive manner was hardly tailored to endear him to the imperious Martinez. The mayor frequently refused to speak to Sanchez and regularly appeared on AM radio to blast what he said were inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Sanchez's articles. Martinez's wife Angela wrote to El Nuevo Herald this past January to protest a statement by a third party cited by Sanchez who claimed Mrs. Martinez had embraced a woman who had admitted falsifying ballots for Mr. Martinez's opponent in the last mayoral election; Sanchez was later obliged to write a story about Angela Martinez denying she even knew the woman.
But the coverage of a controversy over a halfway house was what finally led to Sanchez's departure from the newspaper. This past December Hialeah City Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell discovered that an influential businessman had been operating, without a city permit, a halfway house for former prisoners just down the street from an elementary school and a day-care center.
Caldwell, an outspoken critic of Martinez, revealed her sensational findings at a city council meeting and called for the city to close the home, named Suelo Neutral (Neutral Ground). (The owner of the halfway house, Ruben Figueredo, insists his facility has the proper licenses and doesn't harbor dangerous criminals, but he has been ordered by the council to obtain a zoning permit or shut down.)
Caldwell's revelation prompted public petition drives and a series of articles by Sanchez. There were plenty of questions about how the facility came to be operating and whether it had bypassed the city's licensing process. Sanchez was also interested in Martinez's ties to Figueredo and to other local businessmen who had contributed money to the reelection campaigns of Martinez and his allies on the council, but also to Caldwell and other politicians not favorable to the mayor.