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Look Back in Anthrax

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.

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."

EPA: FPecker charges that the EPA, in searching for spores at AMI, "contaminated the building." The letters that carried the disease followed the company's usual mail trail, Pecker argues, so when the EPA discovered 84 tainted areas, it showed that the agency's workers must have "cross-contaminated the building by trampling around. So the whole building is filled with anthrax." Adding insult to injury, Pecker says, the EPA then tried to bill AMI for the lab work, first asking for $800,000, then reducing the charge to $500,000. "We had a very difficult conversation," he says.

Pecker gives authorities a D overall, for poor coordination and bad communications skills. The FBI, the CDC, postal investigators, Army intelligence, Defense intelligence, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a Coast Guard bioterrorism group were all at cross-purposes, he says. "The only way I knew what was going on was the CNN scroll."

Pecker feels he's been left holding the bag. "When the FBI finished, they gave [the building] back to the EPA, who gave it back to the county health department, who gave it back to me."

The contaminated building is still locked, barred, and patrolled by local police at AMI expense. The company is soliciting bids from private decontamination firms, a process that may take up to six months. Pecker won't even guess at what the cleanup will cost but says the Hart Senate Building decontamination tab was $14 million for 3000 square feet. AMI's former headquarters includes 70,000 square feet.

Pecker seems resigned to bearing the cost. As he tells it, public officials need only invoke the mantra of "private sector" and he feels disarmed. It's his building, after all, and anyway, insurance companies may yet bail him out.

He still can't shake the feeling he deserves some help, however. "This building is a public health hazard," he says. "God forbid there's a hurricane and something happens to it -- the windows come out, the anthrax comes out... Would I be responsible for that?"

Rocky relations with Palm Beach County authorities are another reason Pecker won't commit to staying in the area once the two-year lease at T-REX is up. When the county last December considered offering job-retention grants to keep AMI from leaving town, critics complained that the penny-dreadful publisher was undeserving of public subsidy. "When I heard that," Pecker says, "I said, "OK. I've had enough. I don't want your money.'" The furor died down, but Pecker says he's heard nothing more about county aid since then: "No conversations, no money, no proposals."

All that remains are the wounded feelings and what Pecker describes as "serious proposals" to relocate out of state. "We spend $100 million a year in Palm Beach County," Pecker says. "Maybe that's not enough.... I don't believe we're outcasts. Look at how [New York Gov. George] Pataki and [former New York City Mayor Rudy] Giuliani managed in New York. I still don't have that type of feeling from anybody here."

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Steve Ellman

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