The Man Who Caught Carmen

Both Cook and Ed Wasserman say they're accustomed to the Herald failing to give them credit for stories broken in the Review. But what drove Wasserman to distraction -- and caused him to spend several thousand bucks on a billboard -- was the fact that for nearly eight months Herald managers disregarded the Review's continuing disclosures that the Port of Miami was in serious disarray. Says Wasserman: "It was particularly egregious because it also served the purpose of absolving county commissioners for having ignored those disclosures. Commissioners sat on their hands for months. There was a community of interest between a newspaper that didn't move aggressively enough and a county commission that didn't move aggressively enough."

The Herald's opportunities to move aggressively in investigating Carmen Lunetta have been numerous and date back many years. As early as 1982 the paper chronicled baffling irregularities at the port. At that time Lunetta was challenged by the paper to explain why one particular consultant (none other than today's golden boy, Luis Ajamil) received an inordinate amount of work and exceedingly attractive contracts. The paper also reported on a bid for a port project that appeared to be rigged to the benefit of one particular port tenant.

A full decade later, in 1992, the Herald again caught Lunetta red-handed, this time as he leaned on his friends at Fiscal Operations to keep an old buddy, Julian M. Fernandez, on its payroll even though Fernandez was officially working for the county. Also that year the Herald confronted Lunetta about his suspicious involvement with an Italian restaurateur who was seeking investors (and was later charged with murder). At one contentious point in that inquiry, Lunetta reportedly grabbed and crumpled up a page from a reporter's notebook.

After a couple of articles, however, the paper's attention began to wander. Despite ample evidence that Lunetta habitually broke the rules and then lied about it, the Herald never showed much interest -- not even in confirming his always-rosy portrait of the port's core businesses: cargo and cruise lines.

Efforts to understand this lackadaisical approach have fired the imaginations of local conspiracy buffs. One theory revolves around Knight-Ridder boss Tony Ridder: If Lunetta were to be examined too closely, his sloppy management and the port's shaky finances would come to light. If that happens -- and if it's as bad as some people fear -- the county would have a difficult time justifying the port's expansion into Bicentennial Park. If the port can't move into the park, a state grant of $45 million will be lost. Without those millions, the county could not afford to proceed with plans to build a waterfront sports palace for Micky Arison and the Miami Heat. And no individual worked harder to keep Arison happy and at home than Tony Ridder.

Dan Cook is no conspiratorialist, but he can't help speculating. "I'm surprised not so much that they ignored us," he muses, "but that somebody didn't say, 'Let's get those documents and see if he's right, because if this is true, we've got to let the public know before the county commits itself to a Maritime Park.' My guess is that it's somehow tied up with the arena project. There is no justification for Maritime Park. Lunetta has no rationale to show we need it, and city fathers recognize that a full-blown investigation might be a threat."

Cook is leaving the Daily Business Review for a job in Portland, Oregon. In his final column this past Monday he took a moment to reflect, recalling that he'd been spending the weekend in the Keys at the time Lunetta submitted his resignation. When he returned, his voicemail contained sixteen congratulatory messages. "I loved working for the Review," he wrote. "The paper showed me, finally, after all these years, what a journalist can accomplish with a phone, a pen, a notepad, and a pair of comfortable shoes.

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