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When U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft visited Miami two weeks ago as part of a nationwide blitz to promote the Bush administration's war on terror, he issued a scary warning. "Multiple available streams of intelligence indicate to us that al Qaeda plans to attack the United States this year and to hit us hard," he declared. "The USA Patriot Act is working to protect American lives and liberties and makes it possible for us to bring charges against individuals who threaten the United States and our security."
In anticipation of Ashcroft's Miami appearance, his host, U.S. Attorney Marcos D. Jimenez, issued his own warning. Though this one was directed at a local news organization, not the nation at large; and though it did not concern terrorists, it was chilling in its own way. Jimenez instructed his special counsel for public affairs, Carlos Castillo, to phone in some extraordinary news to WTVJ-TV (Channel 6): Ike Seamans, senior correspondent for the NBC-owned station, would be banned from Ashcroft's June 30 news conference at the federal justice building in downtown Miami. "He said, öIf you send Ike, he will not be allowed in,'" recounts WTVJ's vice president for news, Yvette Miley, who took the call. She says she responded to Castillo: "That's shocking. You really can't dictate to us who we send to cover an event.' I asked him what his issues were and why he would even try to go down that road. And he talked about a past story."
It was Miley's first ever conversation with Castillo, and she didn't know what report he was talking about. That's because she'd been on the job at Channel 6 for only eleven days, having just arrived after a three-year stint as vice president for news at WVTM-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, another NBC-owned station. (Before that she'd been employed at WTVJ for eleven years.) "It was something of a rocky introduction," she says diplomatically of her conversation with Castillo. In her fourteen-year career, she'd never had this particular experience -- a senior public official attempting to blackball a news reporter. "We always elect to choose the person we feel is most available and most capable," she says. "And if Ike had been here, Ike would have been on the story."
Seamans, a former army officer, joined WTVJ as a reporter in 1969. Nine years later NBC News hired him as its principal correspondent in Latin America, where he spent several years covering the bloody civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He went on to foreign assignments in Rome, Tel Aviv, and Moscow, filing reports from more than 80 countries. In 1994 he returned to WTVJ as an investigative specialist who still occasionally reports from abroad, especially from the Middle East. A combat-hardened veteran, Seamans was not likely to be intimidated by a threatening phone call from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Perhaps luckily for Marcos Jimenez, Seamans was far away when that call came, vacationing and attending a media conference in Europe. In his place, WTVJ sent reporter Nick Bogert to cover the Ashcroft event. After the attorney general departed, Bogert confronted Jimenez about the phone call to Miley. As Bogert's cameraman, two newspaper reporters, and Carlos Castillo listened, Jimenez defended his effort to banish Seamans.
"We were in continuing discussions about a story that we thought was presented in an unfair and dishonest manner, after we met extensively with Ike," Jimenez told Bogert, "and we just thought it would be better if we talked that out before we continued."
Bogert was not persuaded. "You might acknowledge that, generally speaking, subjects of news coverage don't pick who gets to cover them," he said. "That seems to be what's being attempted."
Jimenez looked uneasy but held his position: "When I lose confidence in somebody because of the fairness of his reporting, then that's something that needs to be hashed out."
Bogert then informed Jimenez that had Seamans been in town, he very likely would have shown up.
"I hope he's having a good vacation," Jimenez chuckled nervously.
Controversy has swirled around the 44-year-old Jimenez since President George W. Bush tapped him to be South Florida's top federal lawman in August 2002. A member of the Bush legal team during Florida's 2000 presidential-election fiasco, he maintains close ties to influential Florida Republicans. They include Gov. Jeb Bush (Jimenez's brother Frank was the governor's deputy chief of staff before the president appointed him chief of staff of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2002) and former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, who chaired the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission that selected Jimenez.
The selection itself raised questions in some legal and law-enforcement circles. Jimenez did once work as a federal prosecutor, but for only three years -- from 1989 to 1992. The vast majority of his career has been devoted to practicing civil law in the private sector.
He drew widespread criticism last year for approving a plea-bargain deal with United Teachers of Dade president Pat Tornillo, who was charged with tax evasion, mail fraud, and pilfering as much as a million dollars of union money he used for lavish personal expenses. In exchange for a guilty plea, Jimenez agreed to a prison sentence of a little more than two years, even though Tornillo refused to cooperate with prosecutors in further investigations.