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Controversial articles spark threats to reporters

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    NMU         ILLINOIS/CALIFORNIA         Newsgathering         Nov 4, 2002    

Controversial articles spark threats to reporters

  • Authorities have apprehended the persons they believe are responsible for threatening reporters in Belleville, Ill., and Los Angeles.

Threats against U.S. journalists since June range from an explicit warning with a gun to the placement of a dead fish and a rose on a reporter’s car.

In late September, Belleville News-Democrat reporter Mike Fitzgerald was threatened by Marvis “Swamp Dog” Bownes, involved in questionable property transactions known as “property flipping,” which Fitzgerald investigated and reported on in early 2001. A federal investigation ensued as a result of Fitzgerald’s articles.

“The next time I see mother-fucking Mike Fitzgerald with my name under a story, he and everybody that he know that’s close to him better fucking watch out,” said Bownes on a tape recorded by News-Democrat reporter George Pawlaczyk that the News-Democrat printed with redactions on Oct. 3.

Pawlaczyk, who’s known Bownes for seven years, said he only began taping the conversation when it became clear that he was threatening to kill Fitzgerald and his family. Pawlaczyk said he “tried to talk him out of it,” and that such behavior from Bownes was unusual.

While News-Democrat city editor Gary Dotson said sources have tried to intimidate reporters in the past, Bownes’ threat to kill Fitzgerald and claiming to have an AK-47 assault rifle crossed the line.

“This was more than a disgruntled source,” he said. “This was a serious threat.”

Dotson said the newspaper promptly turned over the tape to federal authorities and that Bownes plead guilty to one charge of transporting in interstate commerce a communication containing a threat, which is essentially tampering with a witness. Bownes has recently been released on bond due to a medical condition.

Former Los Angeles Times reporter Anita Busch told authorities she had been threatened June 20 as her car had been vandalized.

U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek explained Busch’s vandalized car: “The cardboard sign (that read “STOP”) was taped to the windshield; a(n) upside-down baking pan on windshield was shot with water cannon by LAPD bomb squad to render package safe. Baking pan was shot off windshield, along with fish and rose that had been underneath it. Because of all this, we cannot say with any certainty whether rose was in fish’s mouth.”

The Oct. 3 indictment of Alexander Proctor on a charge of interference with commerce by threats of violence, which FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley said is “basically extortion,” came after months of investigation by the FBI in Los Angeles as well as the Los Angeles Police Department’s organized crime division.

“It is believed that he was trying to control what she was working on,” Bosley said. Busch had published several articles in early June on alleged extortion plots against actor Steven Seagal by the Mafia.

“We’re very pleased with the announcement of the arrest,” said Los Angeles Times Director of Media Affairs David Garcia. “The safety of our reporter has always been our greatest concern.”

Bosley said the investigation is pending and that they may be considering other suspects. She added that an August report from Ned Zeman, a writer for Vanity Fair, is also being investigated by the local FBI office.

A car pulled up beside Zeman in Los Angeles, according to The New York Times, a man pointed a gun at him and said, “Bang … Stop what you’re doing.”

Zeman also was working on articles involving Seagal and the alleged extortion plot.

Proctor currently is detained at a downtown Los Angles federal holding facility, Bosley said. Mrozek said Proctor plead not guilty and a trial date has not been set.

Former alternative weekly New Times Los Angeles editor Ricks Barrs questioned the verity of Busch’s accusation in his Aug. 29 column. Barrs said Busch was reporting on matters of public record that had been covered by The New York Times and The New York Daily News and that none of the New York media had been threatened. Busch, he added, was in hiding at “posh” area hotels at the Los Angeles Times’ expense.

Garcia responded to the accusation in writing to Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews on the Poynter Institute’s Web site: “I’d like to make one point regarding your posting of the Anita Busch story. Our reporter was threatened,” he wrote. “After discussions with law enforcement, we took the measures recommended to ensure the safety of our reporter.”

The L.A. Weekly, recently reported that Busch left the Los Angeles Times after her short-term contract was up on Oct. 13. However, Garcia said Oct. 31 that Busch is continuing to work on stories for the Los Angeles Times but is “also exploring various options regarding her relationship with the newspaper.”

(United States v. Bownes; East St. Louis, Ill.; United States v. Proctor; Los Angeles, Calif.) AU


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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