Tough questions often arise on deadline

fitzgerald

By Ted Diadiun
Cleveland Plain Dealer

A couple of Fridays ago, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald got a phone message that no politician — particularly one considering a run for governor — wants to hear.

On the phone was Plain Dealer reporter James F. McCarty. He wanted to know what FitzGerald had to say about the fact that his name had come up in federal court that day during a sentencing hearing for electrical contractor Michael Forlani, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and other charges in connection with the widespread Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.

An FBI agent had testified that Forlani often used intermediaries to hide his connection to campaign donations — and, as an example, the agent used a wiretap recording of Forlani arranging a $750 donation to FitzGerald’s campaign.

Nobody suggested that FitzGerald had sought donations from Forlani or knew that Forlani was giving him money through two friends. In fact, when his staff realized that $250 of the donation had come from a man who later pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal, FitzGerald told them to give the money to charity. He said he didn’t know about the other $500 or where it originated until McCarty called.

Yet, there it was, in open court.

So there McCarty was, asking questions.

And there FitzGerald was, having to come up with answers after hearing about it for the first time at 6:30 on a Friday night.

He was understandably dismayed, and he appealed to Assistant Managing Editor Chris Quinn for more time to look into the matter.

Ordinarily, a reporter does not call a source at the last minute for comment on a story that could make the source look bad. That’s the worst kind of “gotcha” journalism. We need to give people time to respond and, if need be, do a little research if they’re being taken by surprise. It’s not fair to spend weeks in reporting, then call the target of the story late on Friday to ask for a response.

But this was different. This was a breaking news story. FitzGerald’s name had been used in a federal courtroom that day, in connection with a high-profile criminal hearing. It was unfortunate that the testimony had happened at the end of the day and the phone call came late, but the story couldn’t wait a day for publication. And that’s what Quinn told him.

“I agree that he was put in a very difficult position . . . the last minute on a Friday was a tough spot to be in,” said Quinn. “He was naturally concerned about what the story was going to say about a news event about which he had no information.

“But there’s no way you’re going to hold a story like that. When news happens during the day in an open courtroom, we’re going to report it in the newspaper the next day. I thought he needed to know what the story was going to say so that he could respond properly, and then the only thing for us to do was to make sure to report it with sensitivity and accuracy.”

It seems important to tell you that FitzGerald didn’t initiate this column. I did, because I thought it would offer an interesting look behind the scenes.

“This was a story that I thought could have waited until Sunday,” said FitzGerald. “I was being asked to respond to something when I didn’t even know what was said in court. But I accepted Chris Quinn’s explanation of why he had to go with this” on Saturday.

FitzGerald’s surprise at the agent’s testimony and his wish that he had more time to investigate the issue were duly reported in McCarty’s story.

The following day brought another story. The lead prosecutor on the corruption cases, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ann Rowland, took the highly unusual step of contacting The Plain Dealer to declare that FitzGerald is not a target of the corruption investigation. That news ran at the top of Page One in last Sunday’s paper.

“What I was afraid of was permanent harm being done to my reputation, because the U.S. Attorney’s Office is usually very loath to comment about any pending cases,” said FitzGerald. “But I understand that sometimes the truth comes out in segments and installments. Actually, it got told more completely, so in a strange way it was good that it came up now the way it did.”

Also in a strange way, FitzGerald got lucky with the timing on Friday night. At the same time he was being asked dicey questions, the Browns were announcing their new head coach.

Nothing a county executive does or says is going to chase that news off the top of Page One.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on January 20, 2013.