High & Mighty

What do you do when some morons criticize you in a news report? If you're the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, the top federal cop, the answer is easy: You blackball the news reporter

Earlier this year Jimenez battled local news organizations over access to public records after his private attorney sought to seal county court records related to a divorce petition filed by his wife Michelle. Jimenez argued that unsealing them would create a potential threat to his children because of his prominence as a law-enforcement official. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Judith Kreeger disagreed and denied the request to seal.

Jimenez also publicly clashed with Miami-Dade Police Department Director Carlos Alvarez, who has since resigned to run for county mayor. Alvarez charged that federal prosecutors under Jimenez's direction were not aggressively pursuing corruption cases, in particular a long-running investigation into a major contract at Miami International Airport.

That probe has centered on Host Marriott (now Host HMS) and its contract for food and beverage concessions at MIA, a deal estimated to be worth $40 million per year. Among the several well-connected lobbyists who helped Host win the contract from the county commission were two who are also prominent political fundraisers, Rodney Barreto and Chris Korge. Federal regulations required minority participation in the contract, and Miami-Dade public-corruption detectives, assisted by the FBI, have been trying to determine whether Host's lobbyists used minority business executives as frontmen to qualify for the contract, allegedly part of a scheme to channel money into political campaigns.

Ike Seamans was out of town,  so his NBC-6 colleague confronted the U.S. Attorney
Ike Seamans was out of town, so his NBC-6 colleague confronted the U.S. Attorney
Nick Bogert
Nick Bogert

Korge has hired criminal-defense attorney Steven Chaykin, a former federal prosecutor who once headed the U.S. Attorney's public-corruption unit. Law-enforcement sources say other lawyers hired by Host lobbyists include Jimenez ally Roberto Martinez and Peter Prieto, a top executive at Holland and Knight who is also a former federal prosecutor and friend of Jimenez.

After a judge earlier this year criticized Jimenez, Seamans decided a story was in order. He set up an interview to question the U.S. Attorney about the Alvarez dispute and the judge's remarks. WTVJ broadcast the offending news segment on May 13 (see sidebar, "Lies, Damnable Lies"). Seamans noted that Miami federal Judge K. Michael Moore "accused Jimenez of being 'weak-kneed' and lacking 'prosecutorial zeal,' resulting in a sharp decline in criminal prosecutions." (Moore's remarks came at a sentencing hearing this past February for James David Himick, who was busted at the nightclub Space 34 last October for selling 25 Ecstasy pills to undercover cops. A federal prosecutor prompted the judge's outburst by informing him that, because of a misunderstanding, the U.S. Attorney's Office was willing to let Himick plead guilty to a misdemeanor possession charge, which would carry a maximum sentence of sixteen months.)

The report then cut to footage of Seamans challenging Jimenez with Justice Department figures showing "a nearly 50 percent decrease in suspects charged under antiterrorist laws and a 61 percent drop in public-corruption prosecutions, unlike other districts."

In response Jimenez seemed to waffle. At first he called the statistics "false," then backpedaled, then contended that conviction rates counted more than total prosecutions. From there the piece moved through a tit-for-tat exchange between Jimenez and Alvarez, who rebuked the U.S. Attorney for failing to follow through on cases and refusing to cooperate with MDPD. Jimenez countered by accusing Alvarez of noncooperation and describing the police director's decision to pull detectives off a federal corruption case as "reprehensible."

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a 34-year-old independent organization in Washington, D.C., that monitors attacks on the First Amendment nationwide and provides legal counsel to journalists. The committee's legal defense director, attorney Gregg Leslie, says Jimenez crossed the line when he blackballed Seamans. "He [Jimenez] certainly has a right to complain about and talk with a reporter about any biases or unfairness," Leslie acknowledges, "but no public official has the right to deny access based on perceived unfairness or biases. There's simply no justification for what is content- or viewpoint-based discrimination against one person trying to cover a public office. If you are making that decision purely because of their viewpoint or what they've said in the past, it's one of the most unconstitutional restrictions on expressive activity."

Had Seamans not been on vacation, and had he actually been barred from the press conference, Leslie adds, WTVJ's ultimate recourse would be a federal lawsuit alleging that Jimenez and his office had violated the reporter's First Amendment rights and seeking an injunction to remove the ban. "The thing that would be cut-and-dried in a court of law is if they were trying to stop him from speaking," Leslie explains. "And in a sense, if a press conference is an opportunity to ask questions, they are stopping him from speaking to a public official. But even without that speech element, the newsgathering aspect has enough constitutional protections that the First Amendment would apply to this kind of activity. You just cannot make these distinctions based on somebody's viewpoint or the content of their speech."

Jimenez refused to comment on his decision to block Seamans from attending the Ashcroft news conference. He would not grant New Times even a brief interview about the matter, and he denied a request to answer questions in writing. Nor would Jimenez respond to Gregg Leslie's legal analysis that blackballing a reporter over past news reports constituted a violation of the First Amendment. Instead, through public affairs assistant Carlos Castillo, Jimenez asserted that the issue was a private matter between the U.S. Attorney's Office and WTVJ. "We will not be commenting to you on this matter," Castillo wrote in an e-mail. "Any issue with NBC-6 has been and will continue to be taken up with them."

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