In May, Emily Bloch, a student at Florida Atlantic University, wrote an article for the school's newspaper, the University Press (UP), about an alleged campus gang rape. About one week after her article was published, a similar piece surfaced on the Boca Raton Tribune's website. The byline said it was written by "Fred Hamilton," and to the UP staff's surprise, this presumedly professional writer had blatantly ripped off Bloch's article. Word for word, Hamilton had lifted entire passages from her piece.
But what followed was even more bizarre: efforts to find Hamilton turned up no such man. They did, however, lead to more questions about the people running and contributing to the small Boca newspaper, which publishes a website as well as a bi-weekly print edition (weekly from October through May). The owners of the paper also publish a sister paper online, the Delray Beach Tribune.
The Boca paper hints that it publishes content from outside sources on its "About Us" page, which says:
Our mission is clear: To publish news from schools, non-profit groups, civic organizations, houses of worship, business groups and businesses, Boca Raton City Hall and stories from and about East and West Boca Raton. Photos are also welcome.
Bizarrely for a newspaper, the website also threatens, " If PR Agencies persist in calling us we will ban their numbers and email from our servers."
The paper is owned by Douglas Heizer, who started it in March of 2010. Heizer's son, Pedro Heizer, is the managing editor of the Boca Raton Tribune and a past student at FAU (though Bloch said she did not know him personally).
After catching the plagiarism, Bloch (who also freelances for the New Times) said she called the Heizers to urge staff to attribute her or the UP, but her calls went ignored. Frustrated, she researched more of Hamilton's articles and discovered a disconcerting trend of serial plagiarism. She wrote a damning column, calling out Hamilton for his "ballsy behavior" of copying and pasting work that was not his own. She provided screenshots to cross-reference original pieces. Soon after her piece became public, Bloch says, Douglas Heizer threatened to sue her unless she deleted the piece.
However, she stood her ground. Her piece caught the attention of Michael Koretzky at the Society of Professional Journalists. After he wrote about the hubub, Douglas Heizer announced he would be suspending Fred Hamilton and be removing his articles from the newspaper's website. It seemed like a huge win for a student underdog against a news agency; the UP staff felt justice had been done.
Meanwhile, New Times covered the incident and tried reaching Hamilton for comment and the opportunity to defend his reputation. But there was no internet trail for a journalist named Fred Hamilton in Boca — no Facebook, Twitter, nor LinkedIn profiles. Just bylines with the Boca Raton Tribune.
Some journalists noted this lack of an internet trail and began to question Hamilton's existence, wondering if perhaps "Fred Hamilton" was a pseudonym used to shoddily repost articles.
@pedroheizer Who is Fred Hamilton? Serious question. I can find no meaningful evidence that he actually exists outside of your publication.— George Chidi (@neonflag) May 26, 2015
Reached at The Boca Raton Tribune's office by phone, Pedro Heizer reiterated that the staff had indeed completed an internal investigation and decided it was best to remove Hamilton's articles from the newspaper's website due to concerns they were also plagiarized. Heizer claimed that Hamilton was a retired African-American gentleman who previously "worked for the Rolling Meadows Review in Illinois," a now-defunct newspaper, and that he was not a staff member, so they did not have his contact information.
"I've seen him though before," Heizer said. He insisted Hamilton exists.
New Times attempted to reach all the local men we could find named Fred Hamilton, but they either did not fit the description or claimed to have never worked for newspapers.
Heizer later clarified that Hamilton's work had came from CRA Media Group, which he described as an Associated Press-like company that delivers local stories to community newspapers. Its CEO is C. Ron Allen, a former Sun Sentinel reporter who is also, according to Heizer, the interim editor-in-chief for both of the Heizers' newspapers. Heizer said that Allen was, indeed, "the best point of contact for Fred Hamilton. "
Multiple phone messages were left for Allen, and Heizer said he would pass along a request for comment, but Allen never responded.
On his LinkedIn profile, Allen claims to hold a Bachelor of Arts in TV Radio & Motion Pictures from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst — a claim he also makes on CRA's Media Group's website. However, the school's registrar's office told New Times that UMass has "never" offered that degree program and that Allen attended in the mid-'80s with an undeclared major, but "failed to enroll in classes in the fall of '86 and never graduated with any undergraduate academic degree. Not even an associate's degree."
On CRA's website, Allen's bio says that he is an inductee into the "Black Journalists Hall of Fame." The only such institution New Times could find is run by the National Association of Black Journalists. He is not listed as one of the inductees. In 1999, he was given a community service award though by the NABJ.
In an issue of Legacy magazine, a bio of Allen says that he helped found the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County. However, Diane Pacheco, who works at the coalition as the chief development and compliance officer, says that the founding members do not recall Allen's name nor his involvement in "any official sense" of the organization's founding. Though the Sun Sentinel did have representatives cover early developments of the organization, Allen was allegedly "never" among them.
Allen also claims to be a Pulitzer Prize nominee, but he does not appear to be a nominated finalist in any prize category. His claimed coverage on "police corruption" matches none of the Sun Sentinel's 13 nominated finalist distinctions, including those when the Sentinel staff was recognized collectively.
Claudia Weissberg at the Pulitzer Prize office in New York City explained to New Times Allen may have submitted a piece to be reviewed by the Pulitzer Prize Board, but Columbia University, which awards the prestigious journalism prize, says the "only real nominees are nominated finalists." The Pulitzer Prize office discourages journalists from saying she or he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize "simply because an entry was sent to us."
Allen does seem to be very engaged in community development works through a non-profit he runs called The Knights of Pythagoras Mentoring Network. Its mission is to uphold "the core values of academic excellence, honor, civic duty and teamwork."
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When confronted with the discrepancies on Allen's bio, Pedro Heizer seemed unconcerned, saying "C. Ron Allen never lied to us."
In the days after our calls, CRA Media's website was redesigned, though Allen's bio remained the same.
Well over one month since New Times began asking questions, neither Fred Hamilton nor C. Ron Allen have surfaced and Bloch remains frustrated.
"Finding and talking to the sources is a journalist's job. If there are two sides, you talk to those two sides," she said, referring to getting in contact with Hamilton. "We as the media are supposed to hold people accountable. It's sad that we've stooped to the level of having to hold other publications accountable."