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Oh %$#@! 

After taking a beating, Clifton faces federal heat anyway.

In a column last month, Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton announced that he was withholding two stories of "profound importance." Since both were based on sealed documents, he feared their publication would lead to a government investigation, at which point his reporters would either be forced to rat their sources or go to jail.

"Because talking isn't an option and jail is too high a price to pay, these two stories will go untold for now," he wrote.

Clifton spent the subsequent weeks being pounded. Letter writers from around the country called him a coward. His own reporters saw it as yet another example of The PD's absence of testicular grit.

"It became a simplistic discussion of a chickenshit editor and a source he was protecting," he complained to Editor & Publisher. A reporter from Niagara Falls responded by writing that "Doug Clifton . . . represents everything that is wrong about journalism today."

But last week his problems grew worse. When Scene ran its cover story on the FBI's corruption investigation of former Cleveland Mayor Mike White -- one of the stories Clifton was holding -- The PD was forced to rush its own article into print, comically labeling it an "exclusive" on its website.

Not only had Clifton been scooped by the rag you're reading now -- motto: Too Stupid to Be Scared for Over 35 Years -- he'll now have to face the feds anyway.

Last week, U.S. District Judge James Gwin ordered a criminal investigation into the leaked documents. Both papers have vowed not to rat their sources. "I'm certainly not hoping for [jail], but I made a promise, and if that's what it comes to, then that's the cost of what I do," said PD reporter Mike Tobin in Sunday's paper.

Meanwhile, Scene reporters appear more enthusiastic about the prospect of jail, since they don't have to go to work and the jail serves really good bologna sandwiches.

History of wimps
When Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Miriam Hill read about Clifton's woes last week, it reminded her of her own experiences at The PD.

In 1994, National City Bank was caught giving a telemarketing company the account balances, credit-card numbers, and Social Security numbers of its customers. To show how easy it was for a telemarketer to swipe the info and give it to anyone he wanted, one did just that -- and disseminated it to newspapers.

A judge issued a temporary restraining order, barring anyone from revealing the information, says Hill. So PD editors killed her story. "My editors didn't fight at all," she says. "I couldn't believe it."

But the Beacon Journal -- a ball-busting paper in days of yore -- ran the story anyway, prompting The PD to again play follow-up. "I've been gone for seven years," says Hill. "I couldn't believe it when I read your story. It was déjà vu."

No way, Jose!
On July 17th, a 29-year-old woman ran from a room at the Elyria Red Roof Inn and stumbled to the front desk. She claimed she had just been sexually assaulted.

Police arrested Miguel Urena, a 29-year-old from New York, as he was fleeing from the scene in a black Cadillac. He was charged with rape and abduction. But here's the kicker: The police report states that the woman said she was raped by Tribe second baseman Ronnie Belliard.

The woman's brother, Jose (he asked that his last name not be used), defends her claim, but says Belliard was not the man who had sex with her. "He held her down for the other guy," he says. "When they switched up, that's when she got away." He said she identified Belliard from pictures on the internet.

Sergeant Kirk Smith says that another man was in the Caddy when Urena was arrested, but it was not Belliard. "This thing is still under investigation," he says. "Until we identify who the second person was, there will be no charges."

Police confiscated the surveillance tape from the Red Roof Inn but won't say whether it shows Belliard. Indians spokesman Bart Swain says Belliard is innocent. "Ronnie has denied that he was there and denies knowing this guy," he says.

Jose thinks Elyria police are just afraid to turn the case into a high-profile storm. "The police kept asking my sister, 'Are you sure you really want to go after Belliard? Are you sure you want to go there?' What's it matter who he is?"

Joe feels screwed
A federal lawsuit claims that the idea for NBC's new reality show, Average Joe: The Joes Strike Back, was stolen from three local businessmen.

Entrepreneur Peter Cimoroni, cosmetic dentist Bill Costaras, and one-time Average Joe contestant Fredo LaPonza claim that they came up with the idea for the sequel. The concept was to give an "Average Joe" a second chance at love, this time with an extreme makeover. Cimoroni would co-produce the show, starring LaPonza and featuring mouth makeovers by Costaras.

Cimoroni says he made the pitch to the show's producer, Andrew Glassman, last April. "He loved it," says Cimoroni. "He said, 'Anything to keep Fredo happy, I'll do it.'" But Cimoroni claims that NBC offered to pay them just $5,000. When the three balked, NBC produced it without them.

"They're producers. They screw everyone in sight," LaPonza says. "They mess with your head. They mindscrew you."

The three men are now suing NBC and the show's producers for $30 million. NBC declined to comment.

Reality bites
Oh, the woes of being a former reality-TV star: One moment you're in Hollywood, slinging shots with Russell Simmons, high-fiving Tyrese, and getting offers to model. The next moment you're back in Oberlin, sorting through offers to sing at . . . bat mitzvahs.

"After American Idol ended, I was still under contract with the show for six months," explains former contestant Charles Grigsby. "When I called all these people back after that six months was up, it wasn't like they weren't interested, it's just that their focus was already on the next season."

But, he tells Punch, "The bat mitzvah paid well. I got, like, I think $4,000 to sing. The girl's parents were rich."

For two years, Grigsby suffered under the weight of former stardom. Now he's back with his first album -- sort of.

It's an independently produced EP, which Grigsby hopes will get the attention of a record label. "I've still got the fan base," he explains. "Like, I was out at a party on New Year's, trying to be kind of incognito . . . All of a sudden, this Puerto Rican lady starts speaking to me in Spanish, and I'm not really understanding what's she's saying. Then I hear ŒAmerican Idol,' and she comes over and gives me a big hug. And I'm like, whoa," Grigsby laughs. "That kind of thing still happens a lot."

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