By: Joe Strupp
Florida state prosecutors who have been investigating whether a fired Miami Herald columnist broke the law when he taped a phone conversation with a former city commissioner who later killed himself may wrap up their inquiry as soon as Friday.
Joseph Centorino, chief of the public corruption division of the Florida State Attorney’s Office in Miami, has been leading the investigation into the actions of Jim DeFede, the former columnist who was fired on July 27. Centorino told E&P that the investigation would likely be finished “within a matter of a few days,” possibly even as early as Friday.
“It will be either later this week or early next week,” Centorino said, although he declined to comment further on his findings or say whether criminal charges would be filed against DeFede. “We can’t comment on that until we reach a conclusion and make something public,” he said. “We have done what we thought was appropriate.”
Reached at his home on Wednesday, DeFede declined to speculate on the likely outcome. But he hinted that if investigators conclude that he broke no laws, he should be rehired. “I think it might provide some new perspectives we can all learn from,” he said.
Tom Fielder, Herald editor, said Wednesday that any exoneration would be welcome news, but would not win DeFede his job back. “The decision [to fire him] was not predicated on any findings that there was grounds to prosecute,” the editor said. “It was one of the considerations, but not the only one. It was also the ethics involved and our own policy about being above-board in our dealings.”
When asked if there was anything that could prompt him to rehire DeFede, Fiedler said not at the moment. “I never want to say there is nothing because I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said. “But I haven’t learned anything since the decision was made that would cause me to change that decision.”
DeFede lost his job just hours after taping an interview with Arthur Teele Jr. Soon after their conversation, Teele committed suicide in the Herald’s lobby. DeFede told editors he had taped the conversation, at least part of which was reportedly off the record, without Teele’s consent.
According to legal experts, Florida is one of only about a dozen states that require both parties to consent to the taping of a phone conversation. The state’s statute says, “All parties must consent to the recording or the disclosure of the contents of any wire, oral or electronic communication in Florida. Recording or disclosing without the consent of all parties is a felony” unless it is a first offense, which is considered a misdemeanor.
The statute also states that “consent is not required for the taping” of someone “who does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.” That provision has caused some legal experts to question whether it could apply to a reporter interviewing a public official.
The investigation into DeFede is focused solely on whether his taping of Teele violated state law, Centorino said. “It was not massive, it was fairly limited,” he said of the month-long probe. “There are not really that many people involved.”
DeFede, who remains unemployed, said he allowed investigators to interview him on two occasions since the incident, including one interview on July 29 that lasted nearly three hours. He said he sought no immunity and did not decline to answer any questions.
Teele’s suicide came just days after he had been arraigned on corruption charges and the same day a scathing report in the Miami New Times was published. The New Times article included lewd details of Teele’s alleged interaction with male prostitutes.
New Times Editor Jim Mullin recently resigned from the paper, and was quoted as saying Teele’s suicide was a “very sobering experience.?