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The Black Journalism Institute. Has a nice ring to it (better than, say, the Yellow Journalism Institute, anyway). A place for disadvantaged African-American youth to learn some of the finer points of the newspaper game. They're planning to build one on Sistrunk Boulevard.
Fort Lauderdale commissioners voted unanimously last week to award a piece of city-owned land for the institute. The man behind the plan is Bobby Henry, who owns the Westside Gazette, a 35-year-old weekly black newspaper in Fort Lauderdale. He is getting the land, which is valued at $156,400 (and expected to increase as revitalization efforts continue on the Sistrunk corridor) for a mere $88,792.
Henry has clout. His wife, Bertha, is the acting Broward County manager, and he's got a lot of heavyweight folks rooting for him, state Rep. Chris Smith and U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings among them.
"The Westside Gazette is known as a consummate professional business... [and] has produced nothing but positive feedback from all its readers and neighboring businesses," Smith wrote in a recommendation for Henry and his plan.
Rosy words from politicians notwithstanding, there are a few problems. One is that the Westside Gazette has been claiming fraudulent circulation numbers for years to pump up its advertising rates with local governments.
And journalistically, the newspaper has been a cheerleader for those same generous governments. Hardly the type of journalistic training youth need these days.
"The Westside Gazette is very fraudulent," says Leola McCoy, a longtime, well-respected activist in the black community. "We all need minority businesses to do well, but you don't do it with people who have never been truthful in the way they have done business. It's not right."
So what's the evidence? Let's start with the circulation.
The county, which runs about $20,000 worth of ads in the Gazette each year, investigated allegations that the newspaper was committing circulation fraud last year. County employees found that the Gazette's claim that it had a 50,000 circulation down from Henry's earlier boasts that it was 70,000 was wildly inflated. And investigators also found that the newspaper's assurance that the 50,000 figure had been audited by a well-respected national firm was flat-out bogus [see "Westside's Stories," September 29, at browardpalmbeach.com].
During the investigation, Henry lowered his circulation estimate to 30,000 and made no claims that the number had been audited.
So what did county officials do? Nothing. Just kept running county ads in Westside at the inflated rate.
And officials said the inaction had nothing to with the fact that Bobby Henry's wife was deputy county manager at the time. Bertha Henry denied that she steered county money to her family's newspaper and said she has nothing to do with its daily operations.
"I'm not involved in the business," said Bertha, who makes at least $232,500 a year from the county. "I can't tell you what their circulation figures are or aren't."
But the Henry family has been benefiting from more than just county advertising dollars. The Broward County Housing Finance Authority also awarded two of Bobby Henry's sisters, the county manager's sisters-in-law, tens of thousands of dollars in housing grants meant for low-income residents.
Now, you have to wonder why one of the more prominent black families in Broward County would need government assistance meant for the truly needy. County records show that Sonia Henry-Robinson, controller of the Westside Gazette, received $35,000 in county funds to help buy a house in Fort Lauderdale in 1999.
She used some of the money to pay off a $6,000 legal judgment against her, a violation of county rules, according to an audit conducted in 2003. No action was taken by the county. Henry-Robinson claimed in an application that she was making only $16,126 a year at the time, so she qualified as a person of "very low income."
Even Henry-Robinson, who was 40 years old at the time of the home purchase and had been working at the paper for 22 years, acknowledged that her salary was extremely low for a woman managing the finances for an entire newspaper. In a letter contained in county Housing Finance Authority files, she wrote that the low salary was "commensurate with a decline in advertising sales" and that she had been "assured by principals of my business that... my income is likely to increase markedly."
Yes, it appears so. Last year, she was doing so well, she bought a second house in Tallahassee for $95,000. Not bad for somebody who needed county help just five years earlier.
And records submitted by the Gazette to the city show that she is a 20 percent owner of the newspaper, which brings in about $1 million in revenues each year.
Another Henry also got housing help. The editor of the newspaper, Pamela Henry-Lewis, received about $40,000 in assistance from the county, the City of Lauderhill, and a minority builder, DeAngelo Development, when she bought a house in 2001.
But Henry-Lewis claimed a much higher salary than her sister, $38,551, which was just $700 below the cutoff rate for "low income."
Though Bertha Henry left county employment in 1999 for about a year, she was working there when Henry-Robinson began the application process and when Henry-Lewis bought her home.
"I don't get involved in how they got a house," the county manager told me. "I would suspect that they are active in the community and they know about county programs. They dealt with those issues on their own. I'm sure they qualified, but it's not something we would talk about over the dinner table."
Last week's land deal wasn't the first time Fort Lauderdale has shown kindness to the Henrys. For years, the newspaper was housed in a city-owned building at virtually no cost. In return, the newspaper was supposed to train black youth in the printing business.
One of the chief city backers of the Gazette is Commissioner Carlton Moore, who has had a long friendship with Bobby Henry. Mayor Jim Naugle, who's had a long-standing feud with Moore, tells me he's suspicious of Moore's influence on the city's ads running in the Gazette. "I asked questions about the circulation figures, but I got stonewalled by [city staff]," Naugle says. "The question I would ask: 'Is somebody twisting staff's arm to keep advertising in that newspaper?'"
Moore doesn't deny that he's friends with Bobby Henry or that he's urged city staff to advertise in minority newspapers, but he says he's never told city staff to do business specifically with the Gazette. He says he has only one goal: to revitalize the Sistrunk corridor and better the quality of life for his constituents.
The Gazette has also supported the revitalization, specifically the narrowing of the east-west corridor from four lanes to two a move that would dramatically increase the value of Henry's property on the road. But the newspaper hasn't disclosed to readers its own financial stake. One can only hope that's not the kind of standards the $1.5 million Black Journalism Institute will teach.