By Ryan Yousefi
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By Michael E. Miller
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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.
Martinez maintained he was unaware that Suelo Neutral had never gotten the necessary operating permits and that he didn't know former prisoners were living there. Nevertheless, according to a February 3 article written by Sanchez, letters from Figueredo in early 1995 to Martinez and Hialeah Chief of Police Rolando Bolanos did express the intention to open a "community correctional center under the direction of the Office of Prisons."
Sanchez's February 3 article is an amputated version of a longer piece he wrote in late January, which he handed out to reporters at his press conference. That article cites "insinuations" by named and unnamed opponents of the mayor that he "had to have known what that building [the halfway house] was" but didn't try to stop it. The article was held. A few weeks after Sanchez turned it in, and after he threatened, he says, to go to Herald publisher Dave Lawrence to get it published, a story half the length of the original did come out.
About that time Sanchez and the Herald's Hialeah reporter, Jack Rejtman, were given copies of a June 1995 certified letter (when Suelo Neutral was only a proposal) from Martinez to Figueredo, which Martinez said he had discovered while going through files. It seems to support Martinez's contention that he never approved the project. Martinez informed Figueredo in the letter that he would not support the halfway house because of its location near city hall in an area set for urban renovation. Rejtman wrote a story about the letter, but Sanchez didn't. "I found the letter very odd," Sanchez recounts. "It wasn't in the Freedom of Information file which I requested. It could be a totally manufactured C.Y.A. [cover your ass] letter. I decided not to publish anything about it because I had people inside city hall checking for me."
A few days after Rejtman's story had been printed and nothing was forthcoming from Sanchez, Martinez faxed several copies of the letter to El Nuevo Herald. Sanchez says his editors, already irritated by his grumblings about their supervision of him in general and the holding of the earlier story, were unhappy that he had chosen to sit on the information. That led to the "brutal interrogation," Sanchez's suspension and resignation, and his public speculation about why his editors were, in his view, so anxious to please Martinez.
"I don't know the real motives for Miss Gutierrez prohibiting me from covering Hialeah," Sanchez said at his city hall press conference. "But I think it's interesting that she refused to answer my question about whether she's hoping to get a job in Washington, D.C., through her contacts with Lula Rodriguez, the sister-in-law of Mr. Martinez."
Rodriguez, Angela Martinez's sister, was recently hired as a public affairs official at the Department of State. She and Gutierrez are friends. Gutierrez, speaking by phone from the El Nuevo newsroom, says she won't comment on personnel matters but can't resist expressing some skepticism about Sanchez's remarks regarding her future job aspirations. "That's utter nonsense," Gutierrez scoffs. "And as far as I know, Mr. Martinez is not involved in our personnel decisions."
Still, Sanchez was able to propound his theories at length on the three major Spanish-language AM stations, WQBA (1140), WAQI (710), and WCMQ (1210). Besides being featured in news segments of varying lengths, he appeared on talk shows on all three stations either the day of his press conference or the following day. (Not surprisingly, Sanchez's allegations of left-leaning Cuba coverage at El Nuevo tended to be of greater interest to many of his interviewers.) Spanish-language TV stations WLTV (Channel 23) and WSCV (Channel 51) also ran reports about Sanchez's resignation and his assertion that Martinez provoked it.
Most of the stations also consulted Martinez, who questioned Sanchez's fairness and lambasted his confrontational style. "He did this press conference," Martinez says, "and I started laughing. Now someone's accusing me of having influence in the Herald. This guy needs to have a thorough psychological evaluation." Far from retreating to a psychiatrist's couch, Sanchez says he will be looking for another job and plans to write a book about his two years at El Nuevo Herald.
Hialeah Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell, who started the whole halfway house controversy, says she was upset by Sanchez's resignation. "I think Jose Luis Sanchez is a reporter who has the best interests of Hialeah at heart because he is a resident of Hialeah," Caldwell says. "It's sad that politics played a role in his leaving El Nuevo Herald.