When the Juice gets a call about the horrible standards set by the competition, we usually turn a deaf ear, since complainers and haters roam unchecked, like backyard iguanas. Plus, most reporters we know are too busy trying to dodge a pink slip to fall afoul of ethics. But the story told to us yesterday just sounded so egregious, so despicable, we had to look into it.
When Jani Siwek gave us a ring, she first wanted to make sure that New Times and the Sun-Sentinel didn't share the same owner. Promised that they did not, she told us her tale:
Siwek, 51, and her husband, 61, are on the verge of losing their mortgaged-to-the-hilt home in Sunrise. So she contacted city officials and the Sun-Sentinel with a great idea: Hold a benefit concert to help city residents facing foreclosure. Mayor Roger Wishner promised to do just that, and Sentinel reporter Susannah Bryan wrote a piece last month that read anything but unsympathetic.
The Siweks' situation started to display a silver lining. On June 17, another Sentinel story documented the health problems faced by Jani's husband, Jacob (he is in a wheelchair due to a spinal compression injury), as well as the couple's financial situation (fairly grim, as neither works, and they get by on about $1,035 a month -- less than their mortgage payment).
Mayor Wishner even visited the Siweks' home personally, examining the couple's mortgage statement and vowing assistance: "America is about helping people," he said. "We need to bail out Americans."
But the very next day, the sympathy vote was overturned. Bryan reported in a new article that the Siweks were suing the City of Sunrise, saying that Jacob's injuries occurred after he fell on a nearby public sidewalk. That revelation failed to endear the Siweks to city officials.
Commissioner Don Rosen said the news "bothers the living heck out of me." His colleague Sheila Alu was incredulous. "It takes a lot of gall," she said, noting that Sunrise had already given the Siweks $25,000 from its Community Development Block Grant so they could build a wheelchair ramp.
The mayor, understandably embarrassed, was even more blunt: "This will probably affect their participation in the funds raised from the concert."
Not surprisingly, the Siweks were crestfallen and angry. And they knew exactly whose fault it was: Susannah Bryan, the reporter who'd started out squarely on their side.
"We're very angry at the Sun," she said, using a nickname we hadn't heard before. "They took something great and smashed it. We're focused on stopping foreclosures, and they're focused on this suit. They turned it all around."
For starters, Jani Siwek says Bryan was driven by a desire to paint them in a bad light. "She was more interested in digging for dirt than helping us," she said,
oblivious to failing to note the fact that the dirt was a public record initiated by the couple themselves.
The Siweks also accused Bryan of misquoting her: "She quoted us saying things we didn't say, and we want a retraction." But when pressed for more details, the Siweks' story failed to stand up to logic. Not one quote attributed to the couple was in question. What Jani took issue with was this line about Jacob's accident in 2006: "That fall put Jacob Siwek in a wheelchair," wrote Bryan.
"We never said that!" said Siwek, rather disingenuously: A photo in the Sentinel the day before clearly shows Jacob Siwek seated in a wheelchair.
Richard Burton, the Siweks' pro-bono attorney, who's trying to stave off the foreclosure, lets out a deep sigh. "He is in a wheelchair," he admitted. "That's neither wrong nor inaccurate. I'm sorry they feel that way. Nothing in the article was slanderous or unfair."
Jani Siwek also said Bryan's story was faulty because it said of the lawsuit, filed last December, "the Siweks blame the city and [a neighbor] who owns a house near where Siwek fell."
"We're not blaming anybody!" she shrieks.
Burton sighs again and laughs: "Yeah, they didn't blame them -- they sued 'em."
Jani admits she didn't follow her lawyer's advice: "He told us to lie low and not talk to the newspaper. Then he told us to apologize."
That doesn't appear to be forthcoming. The Siweks owe $145,000 on a house they've had almost 30 years and is now appraised at $100,000. The interest rate on their mortgage is 10.55 percent, yet they're trying to stay in the home.
But, according to Jani, it's Bryan who has "made us look bad. I'm very upset now, because she made us look like users who are trying to get over."