Look Back in Anthrax

Magazine mogul David Pecker rates public agencies' response to the Boca debacle

David Pecker's had a rough time of it since last October, when an anthrax-laden envelope arrived in the offices of his Boca Raton tabloid empire, American Media Inc. He's seen one senior employee die of the disease, several become infected, and many more panic. He's absorbed an estimated $10 million in losses, watched the company's $15 million headquarters sealed and placed under armed guard, and had an irreplaceable photo and research library (worth as much as $100 million) rendered useless.

But what really bugs the tabloid titan? Respect. He -- and his company -- don't get any.

Even as one AMI employee, photo editor Bob Stevens, lay dead and the extent of the disease's spread was unknown, "no one took us seriously until it happened in New York, to Tom Brokaw and the New York Post," Pecker laments.

He may be wealthy, but he sure ain't shy
Michael McElroy
He may be wealthy, but he sure ain't shy

The CEO of AMI -- publisher of the National Enquirer, the Star, the Globe, and other mainstays of the supermarket checkout counter -- thinks he and his company deserve better. His papers are famous around the globe. And Pecker has come a long way in his 51 years, from the fading Bronx Jewish/Italian neighborhood of his youth to his present home, a $2 million waterfront mansion adjoining the tony Boca Raton Resort and Club.

If Pecker's office in AMI's temporary Boca Raton headquarters on Congress Avenue lacks a similar luxury, blame it on the anthrax. The room is bare-bones functional, and the building itself is without adornment except for a huge American flag on the second-floor balcony. AMI is still in transition, preparing to move again this week and set up shop in the T-REX industrial park that sits a few miles to the south.

Still, the legendarily volatile publisher looked trim and elegant on a recent weekday afternoon as he discussed the company's adventures in bioterrorism. Nicely coifed, well-tanned, and casually dressed, he was a model of composure, even while issuing a litany of grief. In evaluating the players in his publishing empire's crash course in epidemiology, however, he doesn't grade on a curve.

Palm Beach County Health Department: D (extra credit for late work)"Initially, they were paralyzed," Pecker says. "No contact, no info." AMI heard on Wednesday, October 7, that photo editor Stevens was hospitalized with encephalitis, but a daylong effort to confirm the report with PBC Health drew "no response," Pecker says. "We first learned it was anthrax on Friday afternoon, from the Miami Herald Website."

The county totally screwed up treatment of AMI's employees at the health department's South County Annex, according to Pecker, scheduling the first round of testing for Columbus Day. Nearly 800 nervous employees and their families stood for hours in the sweltering sun because half the annex was closed. Pecker says his complaints went nowhere with local officials "until we threatened the FBI. Told them we wouldn't cooperate in the investigation. Fifteen minutes later, the doors were unlocked."

County Health finally got a handle on things, however, Pecker says, especially department head Jean Malecki, who "took two hours of solid hits" at a town hall-style informational meeting of frustrated, confused AMI employees. "That really took the heat off me," he says.

City of Boca Raton: D"Three hundred and fifty employees here, yet [Mayor Steve] Abrams never walked in or visited with the Stevens family or visited anybody at all," Pecker fumes. "You give to the community, the community should give something back."

Boca's fire department dropped the ball too, Pecker says. When, on top of everything else, AMI received a bomb threat in the first days of the investigation, "we were told the local handler and the bomb dog were on vacation," Pecker says, laughing. "We had to rent a bomb dog from Jupiter."

Local Politicians: BPecker doesn't mention any concrete actions by this group; just that he heard from them seems to have been enough. "[County Commissioner] Mary McCarty called consistently to see if she could help," he says. "[Democratic Congressman Mark] Foley was in touch, and [ Republican Congressman Clay] Shaw was consistent."

Florida State Officials: DThis one really gets Pecker's goat. Even though Gov. Jeb Bush visited the Boca Raton area while the anthrax hysteria was at its height, "We were only four miles away, and Bush never once came here," Pecker says with disgust.

In the early days of the panic, the publisher called the governor's office "several times," and "he called me back once," Pecker says. "Then he put [state Secretary of Health] Dr. John Agwunobi on the case.... I saw no assistance from the state. To this day."

Bush fumbled the ball even when he tried to help, Pecker says. When the governor spoke out against the ostracism of AMI employees as Typhoid Marys, "He compared us to AIDS victims ten or twelve years ago. It was a poor representation."

FBI: APecker says the G-men "kept us informed," although bureau representatives at the town-hall meeting were "not very pleasant" when questioned by AMI employees.

Centers for Disease Control: CPecker says he was "very disappointed" with the CDC, alleging that they "changed their story" repeatedly, wavering on the diagnostic value of nasal swabs and blood tests. When it came to CDC's numbers, Pecker says, he was befuddled. "First it was five exposed, then it was everybody was exposed, then nobody was exposed."

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