Miami Herald staffer Wanda Demarzo broke story after story about the Broward Sheriff's Office that, along with other strong press work, helped to bring Sheriff Ken Jenne down from office and into prison.
Now a small story about a sheriff's award ceremony is threatening her hard-won reputation as a top-notch crime reporter.
The Miami Herald is reviewing an allegation that Demarzo plagiarized a Sun-Sentinel story about a Feb. 5 awards ceremony honoring deputies, including three slain in the past year and Maury Hernandez, who survived a gunshot wound to the head.
Sun-Sentinel reporter Andrew Tran reported on the awards ceremony, quoting civilian honoree John Clark and and new Sheriff Al Lamberti at the podium. Demarzo followed with a story of her own, with a quote from Clark (which has been excised from the onling story) and two identical quotes from Lamberti:
"Maury shows that miracles can happen. Although we mourn the loss of our heroes and colleagues, it's a privilege to present these awards to their families."
"If this morning doesn't inspire you, I don't know what else to say. All the stories you hear this morning inspire pride with service and integrity. There are more of these stories that need to be told, that are yet to be told."
The problem is that Demarzo, according to sources, wasn't at the awards ceremony. I contacted sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal, who said that Demarzo contacted him after the ceremony and asked for the script. He provided it to her, but it didn't include Lamberti's quotes.
It's not known if Demarzo tried to confirm the quotes in other ways, including the possibility of going to the Miami Herald's TV news partner, WFOR-Channel 4, which was also present at the event. Leljedal says there was more press at the event than usual because BSO was also giving out citations to the media.
"I didn't know that she wasn't there," the spokesman told me. "We had more media than normal because we had media presentations. We had nine television stations there, three or four newpspapers, radio. It was a huge press corps."
In addition to obtaining the script, Demarzo clearly did some of her own reporting on the story. At the very least, she also talked to Hernandez's mother, who wasn't mentioned in Tran's story. To wit:
Hernandez walked slowly but proudly across the stage to receive his medal. The audience of about 1,500 gave him a standing ovation.
His mother, Rosa Hernandez, smiled with pride.
''I am so thankful to see him walk across that stage,'' she said. ``And I'm so grateful he can receive the award. He is here today because of all the prayers from the community, family and friends. I am so grateful.''
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While it doesn't look good, especially the quoting of Clark, it's no time to jump to conclusions, either. From what I know of Demarzo's work, this is completely out of character. But it seems pretty clear that Demarzo should have either cited the Sun-Sentinel or foregone the quotes. And the Herald, of course, is right to investigate and serious disciplinary action may be in order. I just hope management doesn't go too far. Demarzo is too good a reporter to be hurt too bad by one mishandled puff piece on a very public event, so long as it is confined to one incident. Her own hypercompetitiveness clearly had a role in this embarrassing and stupid misstep.
Even Leljedal, a solid pro with whom Demarzo has jousted with over the years, says he's never seen Demarzo do anything unethical before.
"We've had our differences but she is hard-working and has talent," he said. "On a professional basis, we've never gotten along better."
[I removed an update and a couple of comments about it because of its speculative nature. There's enough speculation. Let's wait for the facts.]