Fort Myers mayor’s gripe with reporter turns physical

Wednesday, March 25, 1998

Fort Myers, Fla., Mayor Bruce Grady didn't have any complaints about his coverage by the Fort Myers News-Press and reporter Roger Williams when he was a city councilman, but he has had nothing good to say about the paper and the reporter since becoming mayor.

The disagreement moved from verbal sparring to a physical encounter in February, and now reporter and mayor are set to face off in a courtroom. Grady has been charged by State Attorney Joseph P. D'Alessandro with one count of battery for allegedly striking Williams with an open palm. Grady has entered a written plea of not guilty to the charge, which is a criminal offense punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Earlier this week, Lee County Court Judge James Adams recused himself from the case because of a long friendship with the mayor, so the case is on hold until it can be assigned to another county court judge in the circuit. Grady's lawyer, John Coleman, says the mayor will exercise his right to a jury trial and he expects the case to go to trial within six weeks.

Williams, 44, has been a reporter for the News-Press for three-and-a-half years, covering city hall the entire time. He covered Grady while the now-mayor was a member of the Fort Myers City Council, and he covered Grady after he won an unexpected — and close — race for mayor in the fall of 1996. The move from City Council to the mayor's office proved to be a watershed in the relationship between Grady, Williams and the News-Press.
Williams told said today that Grady never complained about his reporting while on the City Council, and that “he in fact wrote several letters praising my reporting, and he copied my editors on those letters. At the time, he was a political enemy of the former mayor and a very sharp critic of the former mayor, and I covered the former mayor pretty sharply, which he praised.”

“He told me on more than one occasion that Roger was a good reporter,” said Terry Eberle, the newspaper's executive editor.

But once Grady became mayor, he began to express open hostility to Williams and the paper, Eberle said.

“He does not like us to challenge some of the things he does. He claims we are inaccurate and take out of context some of the things he does,” Eberle said.

Williams said Grady started to complain and criticize his reporting and that of other reporters on the paper almost immediately after he took office in November 1996, “but he continued talking to us until August of 1997″ when Williams wrote a story that really angered Grady.

“He reacted to a story he felt was unfair. He felt I used a quote he did not say, and he decided he would not speak to any reporters from the newspaper,” Williams said.

Not only did Grady begin a policy of “no speak” to the Fort Myers newspaper that continues today, but he also started his own newsletter, called Fort Myers Today, which he uses to publish his opinions and rebut stories that appear in the News-Press. It was such a rebuttal that prompted the confrontation between Williams and Grady on Feb. 9, 1998, that has moved the dispute over news coverage into the judicial system.

Williams had written a story for the News-Press quoting a city employee by name as saying that Grady had done no research on the effect that large, fast ferries would have on the population of manatees, an endangered species, in the Fort Myers area. Grady responded by stating in his newsletter that the story was “malicious” and “inaccurate.” So when the mayor arrived at a public meeting the day after that newsletter article appeared, he found Williams waiting for him.

“I walked up to the mayor, asked him to tell me how the article was 'malicious' and 'inaccurate' and whether he had done research on the endangered Manatees,” Williams said.

“Mr. Williams wasn't there asking hard questions,” responded Coleman. “Mr. Williams was there complaining to the mayor about his using adjectives in explaining the quality of Mr. Williams' reporting. The mayor was tired of listening to Mr. Williams, listening to what Mr. Williams has said and written and chooses to have no more dealing with Mr. Williams. This has been going on for months.”

According to Williams, this is what happened next:

“He stood up, took off his glasses, and invited me to step outside. We walked outside, he shouted profanities at me and hit me in the neck and asked me what I was going to do about that. I told him I was going to continue asking the same question — Did he do research on endangered manatees? — and if he did, I would put that in the paper. He continued to shout profanities until several city employees … took him back inside.”

According to Coleman, Williams “is looking at it (the incident) with rose-colored glasses” and “we would dispute” his version of events.

“I think Mr. Williams' ego was bruised more than his person. There was touching more than striking,” Coleman said. “They were bumping.”

“All things considered, Mr. Williams placed himself in a position by approaching the mayor,” Coleman said. “If he didn't want to go outside, he didn't have to go outside. He chose to go outside.”

Although Eberle said, “Roger never expected he was going to have a fight” when the mayor suggested they step outside, Williams said he recognized the challenge that was implied.

“It surprised me. It was sort of a hostile motion but it's part of reporting to sometimes suffer the anger, the tempers, of some people, especially those who can't control their tempers well,” Williams said, adding that he considers Grady an individual who has a problem controlling his temper.

Coleman, asked if he would at least concede the mayor's behavior was “inappropriate,” responded, “I think it was inappropriate behavior by both individuals, but it's not criminal. Criminal is either intentional touching or striking of another individual against their will or causing bodily harm. There was no bodily harm. He's out there. He's in the mayor's face.”

Williams agreed he was not injured but described the blow as more than a bump or touch. “He cuffed me open-handed. It was a sharp, open-handed” slap, Williams said.

Coleman said he thinks the News-Press has been deliberately slanting its news coverage against Grady since he won the election, in which the paper had endorsed his opponent. He said the newspaper had “declared war” against the mayor and was waging that war in its news stories, editorials and in writings by a columnist who “writes snide things about the mayor” and “makes up all these nicknames” for the mayor.

“I don't think Mayor Grady's skin is thin. They have been on him for eight solid months,” Coleman said. “After a while, it kind of gets to you.”

But Eberle said, “I can tell you there is no campaign against the mayor.” Although the paper did endorse Grady's opponent, he said, it is covering the mayor no differently than it has covered his predecessors or any other public official.

“The only difference is that this mayor's not talking to us,” Eberle said.

“I think we have to cover the interests of the public,” he said. “We should be fair, but we should also be aggressive. We should applaud public officials when they are right, but hold their feet to the fire when they are wrong.”

Public officials, meanwhile, “are in the limelight and should make themselves available. It's part of the job to make themselves available and accountable to the public,” Eberle said.

After the confrontation between Williams and Grady, the newspaper wrote a letter to the mayor asking for a public apology. After two weeks, when the mayor failed to respond, Williams decided to file the complaint against Grady. The reporter said it never would have reached that point if Grady had just said he was sorry.

“I think that an elected official has an obligation to behave with some decorum,” Williams said. “He doesn't have to speak with reporters, but he cannot bully with profanities or physical contact reporters or any other members of the public. I filed the complaint to make him consider his actions with me or others.”

The mayor's lawyer said he thinks the members of the jury will understand Grady's actions, particularly given the tendency of the public to view the media as overly intrusive.

“You know, the wonderful thing about juries is they are made up of people, and when they sit in judgment, they often put themselves in the position of people they're judging. And I'm not sure a whole lot of them would like to have the press in their face seven days a week, 365 days a year. People must show respect for one another, and sometimes the people in the press don't show any respect at all,” Coleman said.

But Williams thinks the fact that reporters may not be held in high esteem by the public will have nothing to do with the merits of his case.

“People — be they juries, judges or governors — will make the best judgment they can, and that's fine with me,” Williams said. Williams apparently was alluding to the fact that under state law, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles has the power to suspend public officials who are accused of crimes.