The Bite of the Bulldog
Last month we cited a Sunday New York Times special section detailing the decline of the newspaper business from major city dailies to small weekly papers that have served rural and suburban communities for decades. The papers that survive usually have cut staff so sharply that important stories often receive little or no coverage.
Fortunately, some independent groups, usually formed by former newspaper writers, have tried to fill the void. Some of their work has been dramatic. Unfortunately, major news outlets rarely pick up that work. A current illustration is Dan Christensen’s Florida Bulldog. The online report was started in 2009 when Christensen became one of the early casualties of newspaper cutbacks, in his case the respected Miami Herald where he was an investigative reporter.
His credits over the years are impressive. His stories brought down former powerful Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne on corruption charges, and for years he has been following the mystery of a Saudi Arabian family that left behind its possessions in its haste to leave Sarasota just before 9/11. The wealthy family had met with some of the 9/11 hijackers. Christensen has stayed on the story despite FBI stonewalling for years. There was evidence that the FBI had investigated the possible involvement of highly placed Saudis, but had never released its information. Florida Bulldog sued to get complete records seven years ago.
Just this week U.S. District Senior Judge William Zloch, in a 95-page order that reflected considerable thought about a complex and highly sensitve matter, ruled that some of the critical records, but not all, should be released. Expect more from Christensen soon. There’s a reason its called “Bulldog.”
Another current work (and what this piece originally was about) is based on data found in a National Rifle Association report to its convention.
Marion Hammer, a longtime lobbyist for the NRA, has received handsome income from that group—$270,000 last year alone—and more than $500,000 over several years before that. However, she never filed those income reports with the Florida Senate. Lobbyists are required by law to file income reports quarterly. She could have been subjected to some very heavy fines for that failure.
You might wonder how hard Hammer worked to earn such figures. According to the NRA, she averaged five hours per week.
Christensen followed his initial May report by describing the efforts of Florida’s Republican (and pro-NRA) government to avoid going after Hammer. Those efforts include Hammer’s claim to be a “consultant” as opposed to a lobbyist and steering the matter to an obscure office rather than the usual investigative channels. Those tactics worked. As this is being written, the Sun-Sentinel reports that Hammer amended her previous reports and her case has been closed without further action or fines. It was all a misunderstanding. Hammer says she got bad legal advice, etc.
According to Christensen, there was little coverage of the incident in any of the South Florida papers. However, the conclusion of the investigation was important enough for prominent coverage in several Florida papers, including the Sun-Sentinel. What about the four previous months? The lack of coverage freed the Republican administration from public pressure to fully investigate the situation.
This story is breaking at the same time that Hammer is in the news, leading the effort in Tallahassee to derail efforts to let voters decide on a proposed constitutional amendment to prevent the possession and sale of assault weapons. In the light of recent mass murders, this is a big story. Polls show overwhelming support for such laws. About the only people opposed are highly paid lobbyists such as Hammer and the leadership of the NRA. But this one woman has shown great control over legislators. Many of the permissive gun laws that she got passed in Florida have been followed by similar measures in other states.
Those laws have contributed to the abundance of deadly military weapons that have cost so many lives. And Hammer has largely escaped censure for her role in this national crisis. But thanks for Dan Christensen’s Florida Bulldog, not entirely.
Florida Bulldog is partly a labor love. It survives on contributions, led by Michael Connelly, the highly successful crime story writer. Connelly grew up in Fort Lauderdale and attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School. One of his first journalism jobs was with the Sun-Sentinel. Although he now lives on Florida’s west coast, he remains impressively loyal to the old hometown, and serious journalism.