A Suicide and a Dismissal

  • Share
  • Read Later
Within minutes of his conversation with former Miami Commissioner Arthur Teele Jr., Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede realized his friend, who was deep in the middle of legal problems and a criminal probe, was in great distress. DeFede instinctively pressed the record button on the tape recorder by his home phone.

“When Art called me it wasn't unusual to hear him want to vent and talk about what was going on in his life and politics in general,” DeFede says as he describes in detail what transpired the night Teele fatally shot himself in the Herald lobby — and the events leading up to DeFede being fired hours later. “As we started to talk I became alarmed because I was hearing something in Art's voice that I hadn't heard before — frustration, but more than frustration, almost defeatism.”

“It honestly scared me a little,” he says. “I had never heard Art almost in tears as the way he was on the phone. I just wasn't thinking about whether it was right or wrong, legal or not. I was hearing someone coming unhinged. There was a tape recorder by my phone. I just turned it on. I wasn't doing that because I thought that was going to be a story.”

He says he recorded the conversation much the way one would an emergency police call. That decision however would lead his employers at the Herald to fire him in the latest controversy to roil American journalism this year. In Florida, it is illegal to tape conversations unless both parties agree. But, says DeFede, “My decision to tape him was instantaneous — to keep a record of a call almost like you do with 911. I didn't even think about telling him. It was just a matter of wanting to listen to what he had to say and not interrupt him to tell him about the tape. It was not whether it was right or wrong or what are the rules. I just thought instinctively it was something to be preserved.”

Although Teele faced more than two dozen counts of public corruption, his main concern was how his sex life was being played out in various stories that appeared on the Internet, DeFede says.

“His main concern was that he was considered a homosexual, that there was a transvestite in jail who was making these allegations and prosecutors had taken those allegations and released them to the public,” DeFede says. “Art was devastated by this. Art was talking to me about the impact this was having on his adult son whose mother had just passed away, how the ministers in the black churches would not defend him if he was homosexual.”

Throughout their 20-minute conversation, DeFede says, he tried to steer the conversation to less volatile subjects in the hopes of lifting Teele's spirits. “Again, he's got the saddest voice I've ever heard of with Art,” DeFede says. “I tried to move onto a different subject — his upcoming trial on the bribery case and he had a good attorney.” But that line of conversation only prompted Teele to think about how he didn't have any money to pay his attorney fees. “‘I'm dead in the water; I'm dead in the water,'” DeFede recalls Teele telling him. “He went back to talking about the homosexual stuff and again I tried to change the subject.”

At one point, DeFede offered to write a column about Teele's woes. “I said, ‘Art, do you want me to talk about how the prosecutors were releasing the homosexual allegations to destroy you with the black ministers?'” DeFede recalls. “I will do a column on that. And he said, ‘No.' I was saying not all your avenues are closed. If you want to fight, fight.”

He tried to steer his friend to a neutral topic, asking about a community project in Overtown, a predominantly black neighborhood in Miami, and story ideas for his column. “Where the conversation started in a very emotional way, with him almost crying, we had moved to where Art was on an even keel. I took that as a good sign. As the conversation came to an end, he said, ‘Jim, I thank you for your kindness.' He said on the tape, ‘You are one of the only reporters I trust. You are one of the few people I trust.'”

The called ended with DeFede telling Teele to tell his wife, Stephanie, hello from him. That was at 5:10 p.m. on July 27. Forty-two minutes later, Teele called DeFede again, this time from the Herald lobby. “He said I have a package here for you,” DeFede recalls. “We were talking about that project in Overtown. He said I have some things that you should see. I wasn't recording this conversation. I could tell he was not emotional. I even asked him, ‘Do you want me to come down and pick it up?'”

Teele told the columnist it could wait until DeFede showed up at the newspaper the next day. “Ten minutes later, I got a call that Art had shot himself in the lobby,” DeFede says. “I was trembling,” he says. “My hands started shaking. While I was concerned about Art, I thought it had moved past the crisis stage.”

Meanwhile, his colleagues at the Herald feared for DeFede's safety. The reporter who had called him at home with the news of the suicide immediately transferred DeFede to Herald publisher, Jesus Diaz Jr. “I think there was some ridiculous speculation that he had come to the Herald to shoot me. The publisher wanted to reassure me that I was okay.”

DeFede told Diaz he was “shaky because Art was a friend.” At that point, he says, he decided to tell Diaz that he taped his second-to-last conversation with Teele without apprising him of the recording. “And I'm looking down at the tape,” he says, “this was his suicide note. This was his way of letting me know that it was too much. I honestly believe that Art trusted me to call me one last time. You're the one reporter in Miami I trust to tell my story. I think that is exactly what he wanted me to do, his final words that he gave for me to pass on. I can't think of any other reason why he wanted to tell me.”

But still, the recording DeFede made of their conversation posed a problem, he says. “There are rules. I didn't realize it when I did it. Now I'm thinking, what do I do with this tape.. I told the publisher and attorney I've got this tape. I know I'm not supposed to tape, but I have it.” That's when Herald attorney Robert Beatty, who was on speaker phone with Diaz, questioned DeFede more closely about the tape. DeFede says the attorney asked him why he recorded the conversation, whether he had “malicious intent” or did it out of “concern” for Teele. DeFede says the attorney assured him everything would be alright. “There are privacy concerns and legal concerns, but I think they are remote,” DeFede recalls the attorney telling him. “But the Herald will support you,” the attorney added. “Absolutely, absolutely,” echoed the publisher, DeFede recalls. Diaz, however, says the taping was such a critical issue that no such blanket support was possible. He denies such a promise was made. “What we told him is 'Jim, we need to get you your own attorney'“, and that the Herald would support him when it came to paying for legal advice. Diaz also denies that he signed off on DeFede doing what he did next: transcribing the tape. “He must be remembering incorrectly,” says Diaz. “If I had to tell him again, I would tell him don't even think about it.”

While DeFede was in the midst of transcription, the executives at the Herald were holding a transcontinental conversation with Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, who was in San Jose, California at the annual meeting of the editors of the Knight Ridder chain, of which the Herald is a part. Says Fiedler, “I was called out of the meeting literally minutes after 6 p.m. to be told about the suicide in the lobby.”

Fiedler swung into action. He left the editors meeting and went to a private office to discuss the situation in greater detail with Diaz and Beatty. When he learned DeFede had made a tape without Teele's knowledge, their discussion turned from Teele to what to do with DeFede and his tape. Fiedler saw the issue in stark terms. “Making a tape recording without telling anybody is a subterfuge,” he insists. “We talked about wow, we have this, what do we do?” Fiedler says. “Is this a firing offense? Are there sanctions short of that? Is there precedent here? All of those things, believe me, were argued and belabored. We had considerable conversations.”

It was the first time such an incident had ever happened at the Knight Ridder newspapers, Fiedler says. “Not within Knight Ridder is there a precedent for somebody coming forward saying I have done wrong and I did it on purpose,” he says. From Fiedler's vantage point, DeFede had committed an unpardonable journalistic sin that would have ramifications years in the future. “Jim had committed a major breach of trust knowingly with a source in the news,” he says “This was almost certain to come out publicly.” That's when they decided they should fire DeFede.

“How do I respond as the keeper in the newsroom?” Fiedler asks. “I ultimately agreed and Jesus agreed and Robert Beatty agreed. We talked to smart people in San Jose.” He adds that the decision to fire the columnist was made by Herald executives. “Nobody in San Jose said you should do this,” he says. “We were looking to see if there was precedent here.”

While this discussion was raging in the publisher's office and in San Jose, DeFede was back in the newsroom. Around 8 p.m., he handed the Teele tape to Judy Miller, the Herald's managing editor in charge of news and features. Then he sat down at his computer to write a column on Teele's final hours.

“At 10:10 I'm called into the publisher's office,” he says. “I'm made to wait 20 to 25 minutes. I walked into the publisher's office and the head of the human resources department was there. I'm sitting in this darkened outer office. They had turned out all the lights because it's late.” When he finally got to see the publisher, he says, “I looked at Jesus and said, ‘Are you firing me?' He said, ‘Yes, Jim. I think I am.'”

“I pleaded my case as best I could,” DeFede says. “I went from consoling this man, to finding he was dead. To them sneaking me in through the back entrance, the freight entrance, of the Herald to avoid the police out front. They are firing me and they're still cleaning up Art Teele's blood in the lobby.” Fiedler says his decision to fire DeFede was based solely on the taped telephone call. He denies that it had anything to do with criticism of DeFede from the expatriate Cuban community in Miami. The Cuban exile community had been angered by DeFede's column about a trip to Cuba to report on Luis Posada Carriles, who allegedly was involved with the downing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 and several bombings in Havana that killed an Italian tourist in the late 1990s.

“For a small segment of our readership that may have been an issue,” Fiedler says. “An equal or larger group cheered him on. This is what we paid Jim to do, to provoke discussion that forced others to think about their position. Jim did exactly what I would want any good columnist to do. He certainly exceeded any expectations. How the community saw Jim had nothing to do with this decision. What mattered to me was how anyone dealing with the Herald would view this a year or two from now.”

Fiedler maintains that sources should not be left to wonder if their conversations might be recorded without their knowledge by other reporters in the future. “We can't have people wondering whether we are ethical most of the time,” he says. “We expect people to be ethical in their dealings all of the time. It is that strict and that rigid. That's the conclusion I kept coming back to (that) night, and that's why a suspension wasn't right. We have to be absolutely clear when it came to an issue of trust — we can only wish this doesn't happen with your star columnist. Unfortunately we don't get to make those choices.”

Other journalists at the Herald have pointed out that at least one other reporter surreptitiously taped but didn't get fired. “This has happened before,” says one long-time veteran of the Herald newsroom. “There's been no policy on this. The couple of instances that it has happened before it was between you and your editor. You get slapped on the hand and nobody needs to know about it.” Peter Wallsten, a former Miami Herald political correspondent who now reports on the White House for the Los Angeles Times has created a website for journalists to sign a petition supporting DeFede. Says Wallsten: “It strikes me that the industry has been really rattled lately with a lot of scandals and questions of credibility and this might be a case where newspaper executives, perhaps with good intentions, worried about the credibility of their product and overreacted.” “The whole thing is very surreal,” says Linda Robertson, an award winning sports columnist at the Herald. “People have done things much worse than Jim DeFede and they are still working. He did not lie.”

Fiedler responds to alleged case of a previous surreptitious taping by saying “I understand this happened about 18 years ago. I can't comment with any kind of knowledge, but I would say that the decision that I made clearly was guided by the environment in which we are operating today. I think that environment is much more constrained in terms of the latitude we give ourselves in our behavior — post-Jayson Blair. Maybe that's the line of demarcation.” It's a new era in journalism, he says, and people reporting the news have to be above reproach when it comes to dealing with their sources.

The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office is still ruminating over whether to charge DeFede with the unlawful taping. In the meantime, the Herald says it will continue to pay for any legal representation that DeFede may need. DeFede still holds out hope that he can get his old job back. He bemoans the fact that he never spoke directly with Fiedler before he was fired. (Fiedler says that he had hoped to speak to DeFede but said that airport security had taken his cellphone away as he was going through the checkpoint prior to boarding. That's when Diaz and Beatty gave Defede the news of his firing.) DeFede says he would go back to the Herald in a heartbeat. “I loved the Miami Herald,” he says. “I loved working there. I had the best job in the country. I think the decision was made too quickly. What I hope is that as things calm down we can all sit down. They can hear all the facts to see if something can't be worked out. We just need to back the train up a notch.”