Suicide's Aftermath Rocks Miami

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 29, 2005

MIAMI, July 28 -- The flamboyant politician is dead in the most flamboyant of ways. The muckraking columnist is out of a job. The newsroom is in an uproar, and so are many in the community.

This city with its well-refined appetite for the bizarre has been riveted to the splashy parallel melodramas unspooling in the hours since Arthur E. Teele Jr., a spectacularly skilled and spectacularly flawed Florida political legend, shot himself to death Wednesday in the Miami Herald lobby.

The public death of Teele -- a former city and county commissioner who made the runoff in the 1996 mayoral election and was active in civil rights causes -- cuts a hole in a huge corruption case, rich with allegations of shopping bags stuffed with bribe money and seedy backroom dealing. But the suicide has also touched off a journalistic firestorm, with outraged reporters here and elsewhere lashing out at Herald executives and the newspaper's parent company, Knight Ridder, for the late-night firing of star columnist Jim DeFede, the writer Teele contacted just before he took his own life.

DeFede, as recognizable for his Hitchcockian silhouette as for his habit of pricking the powerful, was dismissed because he had taped phone conversations with Teele without consent, a possible violation of Florida law. But the timing of the firing -- word leaked around 11 p.m. Wednesday, five hours or so after the suicide -- angered many colleagues who said DeFede should face no more than a suspension.

DeFede voluntarily told the Herald about the taping, but not before being assured by one of the paper's lawyers, Robert Beatty, and by Publisher Jesus Diaz that he had attorney-client privilege, DeFede said in an interview Thursday night. "The Herald will support you," DeFede said he was told by Beatty.

"I trusted my employer to stand by me," DeFede said. "Suddenly, I'm out on the street. . . . To just sort of throw me out and label me a disgraced journalist is over the top."

Herald reporters and editors packed a conference room Thursday and broke into sustained applause when a reporter urged Diaz to reconsider the firing, several Herald reporters who attended said. His response was an unequivocal "no."

"It's sad," said novelist and Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. "He was a bright spot on that Metro page, a desperately needed voice."

Some current and former Herald staffers accused the Herald and Knight Ridder of using the Teele tragedy to silence a nettlesome critic. A Web site launched to urge DeFede's rehiring crashed briefly after being overwhelmed with hits Thursday. The site -- which includes a petition signed by journalists such as humorist Dave Barry -- was set up by former Herald staffers Peter Wallsten, now a White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and Charles Savage, now a Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe.

"We are concerned that Jim's willingness in the past to offend powerful figures in Miami and, at times, his own employers, may have contributed to the hasty decision to fire him," Wallsten and Savage wrote.

DeFede's firing compounded the controversies enveloping a newspaper that many believe has plummeted in quality since its 1980s heyday amid efforts by Knight Ridder to boost profit margins. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) accused the paper of "sensationalism" in publishing a front-page photo of Teele with blood pooling around his head.

From inside the newspaper, DeFede became one of its most stinging critics, once skewering the Herald for providing free advertising to the Free Trade Area of the Americas organization before a meeting that drew thousands of protesters to downtown Miami. DeFede had also needled Knight Ridder in characteristically acid style in one of his first columns at the Herald. After detailing millions of dollars in bonuses given to Knight Ridder Chairman Anthony P. Ridder and others, he wrote that Herald journalists who spent a Saturday reporting about the space shuttle Columbia explosion got "free pizza."

Shortly thereafter, Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler wrote a column saying "Jim's swat at Knight Ridder's drive for profits was cheap and easy -- but also misguided."

At a news conference Wednesday, Fiedler initially described DeFede's taping as a "potential" violation of Florida law. Later in the news conference, he said he fired the columnist because of the paper's "bright line" on illegal activity and "clear understanding" that the law was violated. DeFede's tapes -- containing some of Teele's final words -- may never get a full public airing, adding more intrigue. Diaz said the paper would not give the tapes to law enforcement or publish anything beyond the snippets in Thursday's articles.

But in an interview late Thursday, DeFede recounted a rambling conversation with a distraught man he described as "a friend." DeFede said he feared for Teele's safety and turned on a recorder because he wanted a record of what he called "an incredible moment." "I'm dead in the water. I'm dead in the water," DeFede said Teele told him while complaining about mounting legal defense costs.

One of the last acts by Teele -- a consummate insider source -- may have been dropping off information about a case that DeFede, whom he trusted, needed for a story. Teele called DeFede from the Herald lobby but assured him there was no rush to collect the package. "He laughed," DeFede recalled, "and said, 'It can wait until tomorrow.' " Seconds later, Teele shot himself.

When Herald executives told DeFede about the shooting, he said, his hands were trembling. For the first time, he realized he held "Art Teele's suicide note."

The man who spoke some of his last words to a columnist defied conventions, alternating between temperamental and cerebral. Teele, 59, was a popular black politician who chose the GOP, a master tactician undone by informants who accused him of baldly extorting bribes, soliciting male prostitutes and snorting cocaine. Associates of Teele's say he learned before his death that the weekly Miami New Times would publish a lengthy police report on Thursday detailing allegations made by jailed prostitutes and others.

DeFede was interrupted while finishing his own piece about Teele for Thursday's paper -- his bosses had come to let him go, though he says they made him wait 20 minutes out in the hallway before saying so. His column never ran.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company