Sunday, September 09, 2007
Wasserstrom Partisans Riding High on Windol Green Testimony May Overly Optimistic
Keith Wasserstrom’s Media Trial
By Avi Frier - FJN
"[Journalists should] make certain that headlines, news teases and
promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations
do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of
From the Code of Ethics of theSociety of Professional Journalists
It seems to me that a number of my colleagues at the Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, New Times, and other local news publications are in dire need of a journalism ethics refresher course. Or perhaps I am giving them too much credit; the term "refresher" assumes they ever learned this Code of Ethics in the first place…
Almost a year ago, when Hollywood Commissioner (and Jewish community activist) Keith Wasserstrom was indicted on corruption charges, a media feeding frenzy began. Seeming to use the prosecution’s statement as their sole source of information, our local newspapers delivered the following "facts"
of this case (in a nutshell):
That when the Hollywood City Commission voted to choose Schwing Bioset to process their waste water, they had chosen the company that was "rated dead last" among the other bidders for the contract.
That by choosing Schwing Bioset, the city was needlessly spending millions of dollars more than they would have/should have/could have spent to get better service from a better provider.
That Schwing Bioset was chosen because the choice had been orchestrated by Commissioner Wasserstrom.
That Commissioner Wasserstrom had orchestrated this choice because he stood to make millions of dollars in lobbying fees when cities other than Hollywood hired
Schwing Bioset to process their waste water as well.
That getting other cities to hire Schwing Bioset would be very easy once Hollywood was on board, since, through a process known as piggybacking, the other cities could
circumvent the bidding process, since Hollywood had already researched the
company and handled the bidding process for them.
That, although Wasserstrom disclosed his relationship with Schwing Bioset, and filed the necessary Conflict of Interest Disclosure Forms with the city, he knowingly and deceitfully withheld his plans to make millions piggybacking Schwing Bioset into other cities after the Hollywood deal was done.
So I’m seeing these stories in the newspapers, one after another. At first, I couldn’t believe a word of it. No one who knew Keith could believe these allegations! We’re talking about a truly religious man here. Not a corrupt faker who hides behind his Yarmulke as he cheats you blind. Keith is one of those people you can really trust.
But then more news reports come out with information that seems to back up the
allegations. More stories. And more. All front page. And soon, even the people
who knew Keith were starting to wonder.
People began to talk. Could he have done it? One news report quoted an elected official in Hollywood, suggesting that Keith wasn’t bad; he was naive. Sure, he did it, but he didn’t mean to.
More people began to talk. What if he did it, whether he meant to or not?
Could all of these upstanding, trusted news sources be wrong? You may
even have wondered the same thing yourself.
Well, wonder no more. This week, I learned the answer. Our local journalists were more interested in giving you a big story than they were in giving you the whole story.
Where did I learn this, you ask? I learned it from watching Keith’s trial, which began
on Tuesday. I learned that Schwing Bioset was "rated dead last" only because
of their price. They were rated best in every other area: pollution levels, environmental impact, ability to deliver what they promise, etc. But they were
more expensive, so they lost points in the overall rating scale.
So, had the City Commission chosen a competitor strictly based on the ratings of the
committee that analyzed each bidder, they may have saved piles of money, but
parts of our fair city would stink like piles of dung.
Could the newspapers have found this out? Sure they could. It was all public record, and the information was located in the same files the reporters had to access in order to deliver the skewed information they did deliver.
And how about the piggybacking? According to one of the prosecution’s star witnesses, former purchasing director Windol Green, piggybacking would never have applied to a major project like constructing and maintaining a waste water treatment plant. Piggybacking, it turns out, is a process reserved for commodities like computers, paper clips, and golf balls. If Hollywood had gone through the
competitive bidding process to purchase a truckload of golf balls, and
Hallandale realized they too needed to purchase a truckload of golf balls, they
could buy their golf balls from Hollywood’s vendor, since Hollywood had already
bid out the purchase.
But for a major project to fill needs specific to each city? Not possible to piggyback. Every city needs to go through their own bidding process. Could the newspapers have found this out? Sure they could.
Do you think they didn’t interview Windol Green when the story broke? Of course
So if there were so many holes in the case against Keith, why didn’t the local media let us know about any of them?
The answer is really quite simple.
In the grand scheme of things, Hollywood is a pretty boring place. We don’t get our fair share of Rush Limbaugh drug busts, Larry Craig bathroom antics, or Michael Vick dog fights. So when a juicy scandal comes our way, we jump at the opportunity!
So what if we don’t report the whole truth? At least we gave you a great story.
So what if we ruined a man’s life in the process? At least it didn’t happen to us!
And what will be when the jury finds him innocent? We’ll either blame a loophole, or bury the story on page 27. We have more important things to do than let you know that what we swore was a scandal really wasn’t! We have bigger, juicier scandals to look for!
In December 1996, a topless dancer accused Dallas Cowboy Erik
WIlliams of raping her while teammate Michael Irvin held a gun to her
head. As one might expect, the media jumped right on it. The pair was found
guilty in the newspapers and on TV before they were even charged by the
police. The end result? The accusation was false. The stripper admitted to
police that she had fabricated the entire story. And Michael Irvin made one
request of the press: "Rerun it, rewrite it, reprint it," he said. "Just like
you did, with the same intensity that you did - the same intensity. Don’t lose
the intensity. Don’t lose the intensity."
When all this is over, I call upon the Herald, the Sun Sentinel, and the New Times to do the same thing that Michael Irvin requested. Devote as many pages to Keith’s innocence as you did to his guilt. For every time you ran that awful mug shot on the front page, run the dashing headshot with the toothy grin the rest of us are accustomed to. Pursue the truth with the same intensity. Don’t lose the intensity. Don’t lose the intensity.
However, leaving aside the inaptness of Frier's comparison of a completely fabricated rape story to the actual facts of Wasserstrom's dealings in relation to Schwing (the dispute being whether Wasserstrom's conduct was illegal or not), it may be a bit premature for Mr. Frier to proclaim Wasserstrom's innocence. Under Florida law, Wasserstrom could still be found guilty regardless of whether "piggybacking" was actually a realistic possibility in this instance, or whether or not Wasserstrom actually made "one shiny penny" from the deal. See Sec. 838.016(3), Florida Statutes 2007->Ch0838->Section%20016#0838.016">here.
See this from Bob Norman of The Daily Pulp Blog:
The Miami Herald's Todd Wright has proven himself a good reporter, but he got it dead wrong about the Keith Wasserstrom corruption trial in a big way this morning. On a day featuring two star witnesses in the trial -- Mayor Mara Giulianti and Wasserstrom's uncle, Arnold Goldman -- Wright led with ... Windol Green?
Green, for those of you who don't know who he is (which excludes Mrs. Green), is a former Hollywood bureaucrat who had very little role in the affair. But Wright saw great significance in him, writing:
Windol Green, now retired, testified that the state's theory about how Wasserstrom planned to profit from a city sludge-processing contract has a fatal flaw: There was no money to be made, Green said.
Prosecutors said Wasserstrom expected to pocket lobbying fees when other cities ''piggybacked'' on the 2004 Schwing Bioset contract. But Green told jurors there's no way other cities would have tried to share that contract.
Wright then belabored Green's testimony in his article, writing that it "appeared to damage the state's case significantly."
Poppycock, utter nonsense. Green's statement about piggybacking, in the eyes of the law, is absolutely meaningless. The statute for the unlawful compensation specifically states that it doesn't matter whether or not money was made by the elected official -- it's the intent and whether a corrupt deal was struck that matters.
In other words, being incompetent doesn't excuse corruption.
And the fact that a corrupt deal was solidified later in the day, when Goldman, the real star of the day (Mara notwithstanding), testified that he and Wasserstrom were planning for other municipalities -- including Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade -- to piggyback on the Hollywood contract as they pushed the Schwing Bioset contract through Hollywood. And that, good jury, is all that matters.
UPDATE: September 10, 2007 - Excellent news for Keith Wasserstrom:
According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:Broward Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus today dismissed a felony corruption charge against suspended Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom, saying he is "presumed innocent" of obtaining unlawful compensation. That means the jury will consider only the four remaining felony charges, that Wasserstrom lied on his conflict of interest statements and that he misled the mayor into lying on hers. The maximum penalty for each of those counts is five years in prison. Lazarus agreed with the defense that the state had failed to prove its case on the main corruption count.