Warning to journalists: Don't mess with Ilene Lieberman, the Broward County Commission's new chairwoman. She knows libel law and isn't afraid to brandish it. In a get-acquainted interview, a brand-new New Times reporter asked her whether she favors tougher ethics rules for commissioners. Her face tightened into a scowl.
"You members of the news media are always hunting for ethics violations, but you don't check your facts," she snapped.
Unbeknownst to the reporter, Lieberman had recently been accused by Sun-Sentinel reporter Buddy Nevins of conflict of interest. His December 16 column alleged that commissioners Lieberman, John Rodstrom, and Lori Parrish had financial ties to law firms the commission hired last month -- without competitive bids. Nevins wrote that one of the firms, Conrad Scherer, had subcontracted legal work to Lieberman.
Lieberman protested, saying her husband gave her the work. But Nevins more or less had it right. Conrad Scherer had referred a legal case to Lieberman's husband, who in turn had her represent the client at a hearing. Even though she didn't receive the work directly from Conrad Scherer, it was still a conflict of interest under state law. But because of the missing part about Lieberman's husband, the Sun-Sentinel ran a correction the next day, citing a "reporting error."
Lieberman warned the New Times reporter against making similar mistakes. She claimed that Nevins had changed her quote, and that this meets the U.S. Supreme Court's malice standard for libel against public figures. "I know I could have sued and won," she claimed.
Doubtful. But even if she could have made a case, don't the issues that Nevins raised suggest the need for stronger conflict-of-interest rules? Not in the opinion of the chairwoman, who argues that local efforts to crack down on such conflicts are a waste of money.
"It makes sense to hire people you know if they are good," she said. "If you found a good maid service for your home, would it be a conflict of interest to recommend that service to your employer?" she asked.
No, the reporter thought to himself -- unless the owner of the maid service happened to be my wife, and she'd paid me to swab a few toilets.
As savvy as he is, former New Times reporter Sean Rowe couldn't help but be amused by the media coverage his story -- being hit by a freight train while attempting to put a nickel on the tracks at Broward Boulevard -- has received. Everyone from the local dailies to radio icons Paul Harvey and Howard Stern has poked fun at Rowe, who admits he was an "idiot" and is lucky to have survived intact (four broken ribs, fractured skull and collarbone, a collapsed lung, and possibly dislocated shoulder notwithstanding).
But now that he's out of the hospital and plans to lead a more "contemplative" existence on a produce farm in North Carolina, Rowe wants to write a letter to the editor.
Last Sunday a Sun-Sentinel article suggested that Rowe's freak mishap is proof that train and foot traffic in the Himmarshee area is a "dangerous mix." Although the article offered no other evidence of accidents around Himmarshee, Rowe doesn't blame reporter Karla Schuster for the "skewed logic." He blames her editors.
"Obviously," he says, with a chuckle, "they put bamboo under her fingernails to make her write that article."
Undercurrents wants to know about any and all political deals, media screwups, and particularly dumb memos from bureaucrats. Let us know. Call 954-233-1581, fax 954-233-1571, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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