After being beaten soundly by the Miami Herald on coverage of the federal investigation of Sheriff Ken Jenne, the Sentinel took drastic measures. It put its investigative team, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year for its coverage of FEMA, on the story. And then came the newspaper's first big front-page scoop.
It was the lead headline for Wednesday's newspaper, bold and above the fold. And it was unambiguous: "Sale not reported on Jenne tax filing." The lead of top investigative reporter Sally Kestin's story: "Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne did not report on his income tax returns the 2001 sale of a Lake Worth condominium for $20,000, his financial records show. ... The omission is the latest in a series of revelations about Jenne's finances."
Basically the Sentinel was alleging that the sheriff had committed tax fraud.
The problem: The story wasn't true, according to Jenne's lawyer, David Bogenschutz. The version of Jenne's tax returns obtained by the newspaper from his financial disclosure forms was simply missing a schedule of the condo sale. It was a clerical error made by an accountant, said the lawyer.
Bogenshutz sent the newspaper a copy of the schedule today along with what he termed a "blistering letter" for an article he termed "totally damaging, totally false, and probably defamatory."
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So why didn't the lawyer correct the newspaper before it went to print?
"When the Sun Sentinel talked to me about it initially I had no idea what [Kestin] was talking about," he explained to the Pulp. "I said I would find out what I can about it and call you tomorrow. The next morning the story ran. And that morning, I actually saw the entire tax return."
Expect a correction in tomorrow's newspaper, though not one quite like the one envisioned by Bogenschutz. He demanded that a retraction of the story run on the front page, in the same place the original story was published. "The thing that upset me was that the story was written in such a declaratory fashion," says the sheriff's lawyer. "Instead of saying it appears as though he might not have reported the sale, they said it outright. It was, 'Here's Ken Jenne committing a felony.' I thought the journalism was suspect."
I feel for Kestin and her editors. The conditions were ripe for this kind of thing to happen, especially with the heated competition from the Herald. Once it's all said and done it's going to be a journalistic cautionary tale for the books.