In July 2011, the writers and editors of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel were called together in their ninth-floor newsroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It was a staff without a leader — Editor in Chief Earl Maucker had retired almost a year earlier, and the staff's numbers had dwindled to the point that section editors were now running the largest-circulation newspaper south of Orlando — at the time even larger than the Miami Herald. It didn't help that the paper's parent, the Tribune Co., had filed for bankruptcy.
Howard Saltz, a long-haired, handsome, 51-year-old newsman, was there to introduce himself as the paper's new editor. He seemed friendly, if a little nervous, standing not far from the elevator in a fancy suit. He was understandably eager to gain the staff's acceptance and told the room that he'd been unemployed for some time. He was glad, he said, to have a job:
"Turns out," Saltz said, "there's not a lot of money in just sitting around."
In fact, while he was sitting around, he lost a great deal. Court documents reveal he was essentially destitute: After losing five properties to lenders and then filing for bankruptcy himself just four months after his hiring, Saltz had $90 in cash to his name and two overdrawn checking accounts. Eventually, he would walk away from at least $3 million in debts, though his wife's bankruptcy filing suggests the number could be closer to $4 million.
Who did he stiff? Court filings show he owed tens of thousands to Bank of America, which the Sun-Sentinel has mentioned in 253 articles since he was hired. Then there was JPMorgan Chase, discussed in 119 pieces. Discover, Morgan Stanley, and other firms discussed in the Fort Lauderdale daily were all left holding Saltz's sizable bag.
Although it's not necessarily a direct conflict of interest, the situation raises questions, says Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and former ombudsman of National Public Radio. "It's an embarrassment, for sure," he says. "I think it should be a concern [to readers]."
Saltz declined to be interviewed for this article; he emailed a statement that failed to answer most of the questions posed by New Times. One question he didn't address: Why did his wife's bankruptcy filing list the couple's address as a Sun-Sentinel building in Deerfield Beach?
Dan Meyers was Saltz's boss on the business desk at the Denver Post, where Saltz had worked for most of the time he was investing. "I knew that Howard had real-estate investments, and I need to say that I don't see any problems with it," he says. "How many hundreds of thousands of people ran into problems with the downturn in the economy?"
Three present and former Sun-Sentinel staff members contacted by New Times knew nothing of the huge debts or bankruptcy. "You're kidding me," said one. "No way," said another. "Unbelievable," commented a third.
Saltz's career in journalism started when he was editor in chief of the Statesman, the student paper at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His résumé on LinkedIn.com says he earned a bachelor's degree in history and mathematics; contacted by New Times, a spokesman at Stony Brook says it was actually in liberal studies.
After jobs in Connecticut and New Jersey, Saltz landed in 1988 with the MediaNews Group, a conglomerate founded by Dean Singleton and Richard Scudder five years earlier. He spent about a year as editor of a small paper in Hamilton, Ohio, before he was sent to another paper in Fremont, California, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. He was a company man, which caused problems with the rank and file, according to Jack Lyness, an editor who worked with Saltz at the paper and eventually took his place at the helm.
"Howard wasn't from around there, wasn't from Fremont or even California," Lyness says. "I always had the impression Howard's interests were in climbing the corporate ladder."
And climb he did: Soon he was editor in chief at Johnstown, Pennsylvania,'s Tribune-Democrat, where he stayed until 1996. "I loved working for him," says former Tribune-Democrat editor Mary Liebman. "He was always very serious... and I think maybe especially so because he became so successful so young."
Next, he was named deputy business editor of the Denver Post, the largest paper in the chain. But Saltz wouldn't be in the business section for long — two years later, he was promoted to deputy managing editor, then into a position as top editor of the fledgling version of DenverPost.com.
It was also around this time that he began getting serious about real estate, which a Post coworker who asked not to be named said distracted Saltz from his day job. "It was like, why doesn't anybody ever go up to him and say, 'Why are you always doing real-estate deals? Why don't you do some work?' " the colleague says. "If I ever write a novel and there's a character who's always doing real-estate deals at his desk, that's Howard Saltz."
By 2006, Saltz was a vice president for MediaNews Group, which by this time owned more than 50 newspapers. In 2010, Saltz was laid off for reasons that are not clear, though it was around that time that MediaNews entered bankruptcy proceedings of its own. Saltz was eligible for, and did collect, unemployment benefits.
It was also around this time, Saltz said in his email to New Times, that "all creditors of consequence were made aware... that there was financial distress." It would be another year before he officially filed for bankruptcy, but a bank snatched up one of Saltz's properties, in Aurora, Colorado, in February 2011. Buildings in Commerce City, Boulder, and Denver were repossessed or foreclosed upon a month later. A fifth, in Denver, was auctioned off at the end of June 2011. Collectively, their worth was estimated at just over $1 million.
In the email, Saltz claimed he owned the buildings but didn't run them. "From a practical standpoint, I am detached," he wrote. "Someone else managed the properties."
But Octavi Semonin, who moved into a three-bedroom home owned by Saltz in 2009, tells a different story. It was to Saltz, he says, that he and his roommates sent the rent. And they called him when the washing machine broke. "He was our landlord for about two years... He essentially stopped paying his mortgage and went into foreclosure," Semonin says. "I'll be honest — I don't have strongly positive feelings about Howard."
Semonin says he and his roommates began getting notifications that the home was being foreclosed upon; he says that when he called Saltz about it, the editor said that "he was 'in a game of chicken with the bank,' essentially trying to get them to renegotiate... That's what he said."
Saltz lost control of the house at the end of June 2011, just before the Sun-Sentinel announced his hiring. Late that July, the bank reached an agreement to pay the tenants to relocate. Semonin says the transition left them with no one to pay rent to for a month — so they didn't write a check. He says Saltz used that as an excuse to keep a $1,600 security deposit.
"Because we'd lived in the house essentially free for the month, Howard basically felt he was entitled to that money," Semonin says. But because the bank had been generous in paying the three to move, they "just kind of dropped it at that."
Also questionable: Saltz's claim in the email that it was "a business bankruptcy, not a personal bankruptcy."
Miami bankruptcy lawyer Timothy Kingcade, who reviewed the documents obtained by New Times, says that wasn't true. "It is a personal bankruptcy," he says. "The character of the debt doesn't change the fact that it's a personal bankruptcy."
The filing includes these debts under Saltz's name: mortgages totaling more than $2.5 million, a $17,000 credit-card bill due to Discover, a $52,000 credit-card bill due to Bank of America, a $60,000 credit-card bill due to Chase, large remnants of mortgages unpaid by short sales, utility bills, and an $835 medical bill.
Another interesting point in the bankruptcy filing: In his position as Sun-Sentinel editor, Saltz claimed to earn $150,000 per year, far less than the $300,000 to $400,000 experts at St. Petersburg's Poynter Institute estimate an editor in his position would typically make. After budgeting for other monthly expenses ($950 for food, $250 for clothing, $2,900 for rent), Saltz told the court he was $419 per month in the red. There is also $1,540 per month in "education expenses for children under 18," a sum Kingcade says seems high enough that a Florida court wouldn't have allowed it.
Saltz was also bringing in about $3,900 monthly from the one Colorado property he managed to hang on to — though the mortgage on it was costing him about $5,000 a month. In court filings late last year, Saltz said he intended to keep that building, which is divided into four apartments. It was worth $650,000 at the time, but according to those same documents, he owes more than a million dollars in mortgages on the property. "It's a stupid thing for him to keep it, but if he wants to keep it, they'll let him," Kingcade says.
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On March 6 of this year, Saltz was officially discharged from repaying his debts; nobody can touch him. Two days later, his wife filed for bankruptcy under many of the same debts — a tactic Kingcade says is typically done to stall a foreclosure or other settlement. When going through bankruptcy, he says, there is an "automatic stay" on all proceedings until the bankruptcy is settled. "We call those types of cases 'Ping-Pong' cases. The creditors are being Ping-Ponged between the spouses," Kingcade says. Saltz's wife was discharged last month of about $4 million in debts.
"I'm surprised that he's so upside-down," the Post colleague says. "After all those years watching him do real-estate deals in Denver, he should be a freakin' billionaire."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the time and location of the Sun-Sentinel staff meeting.