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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.
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.
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."
"Sounds like Jimenez wants to be an assignment editor," quips Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "It strikes me as extremely bad public policy. If an official at any governmental level has a problem with coverage, there's an appropriate way to deal with it, and this doesn't seem like the appropriate way. You don't keep people from exercising their First Amendment rights." Had Jimenez attempted to bar a Sun-Sentinel reporter, Rosenhause assures that the paper's editors would send that reporter "and probably our lawyer as well."
Miami Herald managing editor Judy Miller echoes Rosenhause's comments. "I can tell you that the Herald does not allow story subjects to reporter-shop," she says. "If a reporter has written a tough story and all they did was write a story the subject is unhappy with, then it's not fair play for that reporter to be denied access to press conferences. If we think a reporter can't be fair, we will deal with that. But we deal with it."
The U.S. Attorney is sure to have a fight on his hands if he persists in trying to bar Ike Seamans from reporting on his office. Seamans says he was "stung" by the charges he is unfair and dishonest. "Two times in my 37-year career, government officials have successfully barred me from covering news events because they were unhappy with one of my stories. That happened in Cuba and the Soviet Union," he writes via e-mail from Israel. "It's certainly unusual that a high-ranking U.S. Justice Department official would attempt to do the same."
For her part, Yvette Miley, WTVJ's news director, looks forward to having an "open discussion" with Jimenez about the Seamans flap in order to, among other things, give him a chance to deliver the blackball threat to her face. "I'd like to hear him say it so I can be clear and direct in my response," she says.
No matter what Jimenez has to say, one thing is not negotiable. "Obviously the suggestion that we can't send a reporter to cover a story is one that we will certainly not follow under any circumstance," Miley vows.
Below is the script of the May 13 news segment that prompted U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez to blackball NBC-6 reporter Ike Seamans. It begins with a Jimenez sound bite.
Jimenez: We´ve heard some noise recently about our office statistics.
Seamans: Last week U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez confused reporters expecting news of a drug bust. He began by defending his office´s caseload.
Unidentified female reporter: You lost me. What cases are you talking about?
Jimenez: Oh, it was an inside joke.
Seamans: Maybe not so funny. Critics charge his office has gone downhill since he took over. In court, federal Judge Michael Moore accused Jimenez of being ¨weak-kneed¨ and lacking ¨prosecutorial zeal,¨ resulting in a sharp decline in criminal prosecutions.
(To Jimenez): Are you saying he´s wrong?
Jimenez: A hundred percent wrong.
Seamans: Jimenez gave me a laundry list of his successes.
Jimenez: Our office is outstanding. It is one of the most productive offices, if not the most productive office in the nation.
Seamans: However, Justice Department figures show nearly a 50 percent decrease in suspects charged under antiterrorist laws and a 61 percent drop in public-corruption prosecutions, unlike other districts.
Jimenez: They haven´t dropped. That´s again false.
Seamans:: But then he said --
Jimenez: You can´t look at those drops in those areas. What really counts is quality, not quantity. What really counts is success, your conviction rate.
Seamans (to Jimenez): So there could be a drop, but the quality is better?
Jimenez: The quality is better.
Carlos Alvarez: I just found him to be very reticent to follow through on cases.
Seamans: Former Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, who had a nasty and public split with Jimenez last fall, says previous U.S. Attorneys were better.
Alvarez: He´s not in the same ballpark. There´s a huge difference in regards to how proactive and aggressive he pursues cases.
Jimenez: He [Alvarez] did a reprehensible thing. He pulled detectives off an important public-corruption case and he was running for mayor at the same time. I don´t think you should rely on people running for public office.
Alvarez: It was either his way or the highway, and it doesn´t work like that. You need the cooperation of everybody.
Seamans: Jimenez also angered some federal agencies, warning he might not prosecute cases if they arranged photo opportunities even though it´s been done for years.
Jimenez: I don´t care what other U.S. Attorneys have done. If they didn´t follow Department of Justice policy, it´s irrelevant to me.
Seamans (to Jimenez): You say your critics are totally wrong?
Seamans: Totally wrong?
Jimenez: Totally. Some people like to focus on negativity and things that are not true.