Arthur Teele's death last week brought to a shocking and tragic end a life as complex as it was compelling. Teele was a gifted politician beloved by his supporters and feared by his opponents. His superior intellect gave him a chess master's advantage over the amateurs who sat with him on the dais at the Miami-Dade County Commission and later at Miami City Hall; he was almost always three or four moves ahead of them in the esoteric game of government. When it came to advancing an agenda -- the community's, the commission's, or his own -- he was without peer. Add to those talents a sharp wit and generous personal charm, and it's no wonder many journalists found him captivating.
But now we all know there was another side to Art Teele, a darker side. I caught my first glimpse of it in the mid-Nineties at the old 1800 Club, just north of downtown. Demolished three years ago to make way for a condo project of the same name, the 1800's deliciously noir ambiance, extended hours, and reasonable prices made it a favored haunt of journalists and politicians.
Teele was a regular at the 1800 (as was I for a few years) and he felt comfortable relaxing there over drinks and a steak dinner. I would often see him huddled with someone I didn't recognize, earnestly and animatedly engaged in conversation. He was doing business, but as I would later learn, not necessarily the people's business.
And then there were the women -- attractive visitors who would join him at the 1800, and sometimes the club's female employees themselves. Suffice to say that in certain circles and at certain places like the 1800 Club, it was common knowledge and obvious for all to see that Art had a way with the ladies, a way everyone assumed, and some confirmed, led to the boudoir.
Had I suspected Teele was using the 1800 as an after-hours office from which he operated a lucrative side business -- ripping off the public -- I'm certain I would have deployed New Times reporters to investigate. I did know about Teele's extramarital affairs, yet did nothing. Nor did any other journalists. Why not?
The question is relevant today in the aftermath of Teele's suicide and the furor ignited by our having published the investigative report that led the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office to charge him with multiple counts of corruption ("Tales of Teele," July 28). That report contained stories about Teele hatching schemes, some at the 1800 Club, to squeeze thousands in kickbacks from contractors doing business with the City of Miami. It also included a variety of allegations about Teele's personal life.
No one objected to our publishing the sections describing apparent criminal activity, but many people complained about our use of the personal material, in particular the scandalous story told to investigators by a jailed male prostitute who claimed Teele had been his client. To critics the disclosure seemed a malicious attempt to humiliate Teele. (I'm not aware of any objections to our having included accounts of Teele's alleged extramarital affairs with three women, one of whom had been arrested for prostitution.)
So why did I choose to ignore Teele's personal peccadilloes in the past, but not in this case?
Journalists are well-known for winking at the private lives of public figures. Within reason, if the covert doesn't adversely intrude on public responsibilities, it stays off the record. That Teele himself was well-known for being a womanizer simply was not news -- at least not in the forgiving eyes of local journalists, all of whom (myself included) independently made the same judgment and held to it for many years.
That unspoken pact unraveled as Teele mutated from revered public servant to reviled abuser of the public trust -- reviled, at least, in the unforgiving eyes of local journalists. Like so many before him, he became a walking free-fire zone; everything about him was open to scrutiny. Once the audits were made public, once the criminal investigations began, once the witnesses began talking, Art Teele forfeited his private life. Since then his misdeeds have been chronicled in countless articles, and in a society that prizes a free and vigorous press, that is as it should be.
Media interest peaked on May 4, when the State Attorney's Office released to the public its massive police investigation into Teele, which had been sixteen months in the making. Its contents, including the male prostitute's story, were duly (though superficially) reported by all local media outlets. All, that is, except New Times.
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We weren't delayed just because we publish but once a week. After working our way through nearly 250 pages and realizing it was a mind-boggling document, we expected the Miami Herald to quickly revisit the report with a major story detailing its contents. When it became evident that wasn't going to happen, we began to consider different approaches for presenting the most extensive investigation of a local official I've ever seen.
Very little in the State Attorney's report was fully substantiated, which is characteristic of such investigations. This was the prosecution's evidence -- one-sided, incomplete, and presented in its raw form. But it was utterly fascinating, from the spooky surveillance reports (so this is what it's like to be spied on ...) to the intriguing details of a drug dealer's world. The veracity of witnesses' statements eventually would be debated before a jury (Teele and his attorney were provided with the report so they could prepare their defense; they denied all allegations), but until then this extraordinary document remained largely unknown to the public. I decided we should selectively reprint major portions of it verbatim.
The State Attorney's Office had gone through a similar process. Prosecutors decided what to include and what to exclude from their report. It was the State Attorney who chose to release everything from rumors of romantic entanglements to the recollections of a former lover to the statement of prostitute Frederick Davis -- none of which resulted in criminal charges but all of which might very well have come up at trial. We published nearly 11,000 words, exactly as they were presented to the public three months ago.
To date no one knows if Teele read the article before ending his life. At the least, it's likely he'd heard about it. Did it contribute to his fateful decision? Only Art Teele knows the answer to that question, and he took it with him to his grave. I am left to wonder and to worry, and will do so for years to come.