Magazine Copy Rights

When Palm Beach Post crime reporter Stephanie Slater read the story in the glossy Boca Raton Magazine, she broke down and cried right there in the newsroom.

It was like she'd been robbed.

Slater, who also serves as president of the Florida Press Club, complained to editors that her work had been stolen by the magazine, according to sources at the newspaper. But after editors looked at the evidence, they decided to let it slide.

"I think reporters are upset when they see their work elsewhere," Post Editor John Bartosek tells me. "A lot of other media pick up newspaper stories and use them without attribution. It's common practice. We don't like it. It's annoying when it happens. But we're not picking any fights with Boca Magazine."

Well, I'll do it for them, then, since plagiarism is a nasty bit of business and I believe it happened in this case. The offending article was titled "Red Light Special" and was written by Linda Marx, a veteran freelance reporter and former People writer who now works for Us Weekly. Marx did a feature spread in Boca Raton Magazine's September/October edition on a police bust of a high-class Boca brothel owned by a woman named Nahir Romero. It included this passage:

"On the day of her bust, Romero's four themed rooms — done up in hot pink, lavender, baby blue and leopard — showed signs of rapid departures and filth. According to cops, there were tangled sheets, a stack of $20 bills spread on the table, an empty condom wrapper and many mirrors, massage oils, lotions and radios sprawled around in a haphazard mess."

Here's what Slater, who deferred questions to her editors when I asked her about the case, wrote when she broke the story on March 22, five months before publication of the Marx piece:

"Four themed rooms — hot pink, lavender, baby blue and leopard print — showed signs of hasty departures. Bed sheets tangled on the floor, a stack of $20 bills on a table and an empty condom wrapper lay among massage tables, mirrors, radios, oils and lotions."

It's one of several striking similarities between the article by Marx, who has written for a slew of glossies in South Florida during the past two decades, and the Slater articles previously published in the Post.

Keep in mind that Slater attended the bust of the brothel, called Dreamscape, to obtain many of the details firsthand, while Marx supposedly relied on police sources. A few more suspicious sentences that seem to seal the case:

From the Post: "Though body lotions and champagne bubble baths were offered for sale in the waiting area, investigators said Romero's money was made strictly through prostitution. Police say the brothel averaged 10 to 15 customers a day... [including] a one-legged veteran and a nice-looking man in his 20s."

From Boca Raton Magazine: "Even though Romero, 35, now a resident of Coconut Creek, sold body lotions and champagne bubble baths in the waiting area of the storefront, investigators believed her money was made solely through prostitution; she averaged 10 to 15 paying customers per day, including a one legged man and a hunk in his 20s."

Slater wrote: "Each man said that upon entering the business, each was greeted by a woman who charged them a $60 house fee, according to the report. They then chose a woman and paid her a 'tip' to perform a sexual act."

Marx wrote: "Each man explained that when he entered the business, he was greeted by a woman who charged a $60 'house' fee. Then each man would chose [sic] a woman of his liking and pay her a tip to perform a sexual act."

(Note that the verb Marx mistakenly typed, "chose," was the same one used correctly in Slater's sentence.)

From Slater: "Investigators seized more than $300,000 from Romero's business accounts, as well as a silver Lincoln Navigator owned by one of her employees."

From Marx: "Investigators took more than $300,000 from her business accounts and a silver Lincoln Navigator owned by one of her staffers."

Marx described the call girls' business cards as "embossed with a long-haired, naked woman," which was precisely how Slater put it.

So how did Marx, who never cited the Post or police reports, wind up with a story so similar to Slater's? She admits to me that she never saw the brothel or the champagne body lotions, bubble baths, or other details that could have come only from the scene.

And Marx concedes that she used the Post stories as source material, but she says she got all the information in her piece from a Boca Raton police captain, Rick Reuter, who is quoted in the story.

"Reuter told me at one point, 'Why don't you get your information from the Post?'" Marx says. "I explained I couldn't do that. I didn't take passages, but I definitely asked questions of him about things I'd read in the clips. There's nothing wrong with that."

She says it was Reuter who recited to her those four colors — hot pink, baby blue, lavender, and leopard. And she says that for all she knows, he may have gotten it from Slater's article and simply read it back to her. "He may have said it to me and since he said it to me, I could use it...," the freelancer says. "I had no problem with the entire story. It was easy."

No kidding. I asked Reuter about it and brought up the four room colors. "I think she may have come in and looked at pictures of the rooms," he told me before deciding he wanted no dog in this fight. "I'm not getting involved in that. Put me down for a no comment."

Marx denies vehemently that she committed plagiarism. "If you accuse me of plagiarism, there will be repercussions," she says. "I have an impeccable reputation. I have spent 20 to 25 years in journalism. I've worked for everybody. I worked for People magazine for 15 years. I've contributed to publications around the world and have never been accused of plagiarism. I would never do it. It's not cool."

She also says she has no regrets about her brothel story and would do it the same way again.

OK, I'm not trying to crucify Marx. Unfortunately, what she did in this instance isn't all that uncommon — she just failed to change her prose enough to camouflage the lifting of the Post material. Most people who have worked in newspapers can tell of having their words taken by a magazine or national publication at one time or another, myself included.

Even Marx concedes that a heavy reliance on local newspapers is the backbone of magazine journalism. "That happens everywhere," she says. "You'd be interested to know how some of these national publications operate. If they haven't seen it published already in a newspaper, they won't publish it because they're afraid it won't be true. People magazine did that."

I asked Marie Speed, Marx's editor at Boca Raton Magazine, what she thought of the situation. "Linda has told me she didn't plagiarize, and I can't believe in my heart of hearts that she would," Speed says.

But the editor admits that she hasn't seen the Slater articles. I sent her a list of similarities between the articles and asked her again for her opinion. Her tune changed slightly.

"I think there may have been some carelessness involved, but I don't think there was intentional plagiarism," Speed says.

She adds that she wasn't going to punish Marx but was considering "some action." I asked her if she was going to issue an apology to Slater. "I don't know," the editor says. "You should talk to Linda again. This is more a Linda Marx issue than a Marie Speed issue."

Actually, it's a Boca Raton Magazine issue, and until the publication issues an apology to its readers, Slater, and the Post, it's in a dishonorable position.

After speaking with Speed, I called Marx one more time and found that she too had changed her posture. She says Speed went over the similarities with her and, for the first time, she realizes something went wrong.

"It's possible that I took notes from the [Post] clips during my research and when I wrote the story, I may have used the same stuff and the same terms," Marx says. "I don't remember doing it, and I certainly didn't do anything intentionally. But if I did, I am sorry."

She said she would call Slater and apologize and adds that the entire issue has changed the way she looks at her job. "I will never use research from another publication in the future and not credit it," she says. "You made me think about that."

Looks like my work here is done.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman