A college dropout with 20 years of reporting experience -- including four years at The Plain Dealer and a Pulitzer Prize on his resume -- Gary Webb broke the biggest story of his career in August 1996. Titled "Dark Alliance," his three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News linked the CIA to America's crack-cocaine explosion via the Nicaraguan contras, a right-wing army that aimed to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government during the 1980s. Many reporters had written about the CIA's collusion with contra drug smugglers, but nobody had ever discovered where those drugs ended up once they reached American soil. "Dark Alliance" provided the first dramatic answer to that mystery.
But in the months following its publication, the story was subjected to ferocious attacks by the nation's biggest newspapers -- The New York Times, Washington Post, and LA Times -- and soon Webb found himself out of a job.
Some of those attacks focused on earlier controversies in Webb's career, including two lawsuits regarding stories he wrote for The Plain Dealer.
After the Mercury News assigned him to a tiny regional bureau, Webb quit the paper and never worked in daily journalism again. He committed suicide in December 2004.
The following chapter from Nick Schou's book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Explosion Destroyed Gary Webb (www.nationbooks.org), examines Webb's formative years at The Plain Dealer and the role they played in the tragic unraveling of one of the most talented yet enigmatic investigative journalists in American history.
The Big One
If the Kentucky Post is where Gary Webb learned investigative reporting, it was at the Cleveland Plain Dealer where he truly blossomed. Webb arrived at the daily in 1983. Coming from a small-town daily paper to a regional powerhouse was no small achievement, but Webb didn't get the job just because he had an insider like
The Plain Dealer's Walt Bogdanich on his side. With five years of daily reporting experience and an award-winning investigative series on his resume, Webb won the job purely on his own merits, says Bogdanich, now an editor at The New York Times.
New hires had to share computer terminals, and Webb's computer buddy was Tom Andrzejewski, a thirty-five-year-old Clevelander who had joined the paper as a copyboy fresh from high school, working his way up the ranks to a reporter desk deep inside a cramped corner known as the "quadrant."
Webb would later write about Andrzejewski in the introduction to his 1998 book, Dark Alliance, although not by name. "I was assigned to share a computer terminal with a
tall, middle-aged reporter with a long, virtually unpronounceable Polish name," Webb wrote. "To save time, people called him Tom A."
Andrzejewski, Webb recalled, liked to curse. Instead of saying "yes," in answer to a question, he said, "fuckin'-a-tweetie." He referred to recalcitrant public officials and
editors he didn't like as "fuckin' jerks." But what Webb remembered most about Andrzejewski was how he answered the phone. He would point at it, wink at Webb with facetious intuition and declare, "It's the Big One."
"No matter how many times I heard that, I always laughed," Webb wrote. "The Big One was the reporter's holy grail -- the tip that led you from the daily morass of press conferences and cop calls on to the trail of The Biggest Story You'd Ever Write, the one that would turn the rest of your career into an anticlimax."
Now president of The Oppidan Group, a Cleveland public relations firm, Andrzejewski fondly remembers Webb as a Jeff Foxworthy look-alike who constantly talked about sports cars and motorcycles with the paper's auto reporter, who once gave Webb a bubble-wrapped engine part as a prank gift. The joke was that the part belonged to a Buick -- the last car in the world Webb would ever drive.
"Gary was a hotshot investigative reporter," Andrzejewski says. "But he was also really fun. He had a great sense of humor in a very classic journalist skepticism-bordering-on-cynicism kind of way." Webb also had his serious side. "He was an honest industrious guy, but with an edge, especially when it came to exposing corrupt public officials or inept government agencies."
Another denizen of the quadrant was Steve Luttner. Recruited from the Columbus Citizen Journal, he was one of about a dozen reporters, including Webb, who were hired by The Plain Dealer to beef up investigative coverage of state government. Still a reporter at the paper's Columbus bureau, Luttner recalls the paper's 1950s-era Cleveland newsroom as the journalistic equivalent of a third world sweatshop.
"It was a dump," Luttner says. "It had an open floor and no air circulation and people smoked in there." Luttner recalls Webb as a hard worker who was constantly on the telephone, chasing leads. "He used to say that the system rewards persistence," he recalls. "Gary was always looking for targets. He would lock on to something and not let it go."
If Webb wasn't at his desk, he was in the law library researching cases and government codes, which he would then angrily recite chapter and verse in conversations with any official who refused to cooperate with him. "He would bludgeon people at agencies if he was getting any resistance from them," Luttner says. "I've never seen a more dogged reporter in 30 years."
Not everybody in the newsroom appreciated Webb's intensity or his perceived self-righteous approach to his job. Webb could seem preachy when he ranted about crooked
politicians. His view of ethics was black and white; there was no excuse for breaking the law, however obscure, and it was his mission to expose such injustices, no matter how petty or technical. "I agreed with him," Luttner says. "But he could be a little uppity about that. I figured it was because he was the son of a Marine sergeant."
Now a doctoral candidate at Ohio University who left journalism six years ago, Tom Suddes had been at The Plain Dealer for just over a year when Webb arrived. "He had an
in-your-face spirit of journalism," Suddes says. "He felt we weren't here to nurture people, we were here to raise hell, and I shared that view."
Webb often came to Suddes, who was known as a bipedal encyclopedia of Ohio politics, for advice on researching his stories. "One of Gary's great qualities as a reporter was that he had a great ability to pick brains," Suddes says. "He was never afraid to ask for guidance on how to find information. He was wonderful about ferreting out documents."
According to Suddes, Webb wasn't as straight-laced as other reporters. He had a Metallica sticker on his computer and liked to blast metal from a tape deck
while typing up his stories. Webb also enjoyed pulling pranks on his colleagues. There was an aquarium in the newsroom, and when one of the goldfish died, he and another
reporter fished it out of the tank, wrapped it in some tissue paper and surreptitiously put it in the mailbox of a journalist at a competing paper who was digging into Cleveland's organized crime syndicates. The fish bore an ominous mafia-style warning: "Back Off."
Much of Webb's early reporting at The Plain Dealer involved improprieties at the state medical board. Bogdanich had already written a series about the medical board. Webb picked up where he left off, exposing cronyism in the organization and, more importantly, the board's routine refusal to discipline doctors. Through public records requests, Webb obtained complaints from patients and tracked the board's failure to adequately investigate them.
Greg Wolf remembers Webb telling him about some of the more egregious cases where the medical board failed to discipline errant doctors. Webb got the address for a physician who he discovered was prescribing more diet pills than any other doctor in the country. The doctor ran a clinic out of his house that was open twice a week. Webb drove there, and saw a line of people waiting outside. Webb weighed only 160 pounds, but it was wintertime, and Webb wore several layers underneath a bulky winter jacket. When he got to the front of the line, the doctor asked him what was wrong.
"I'm fat," Webb responded. The doctor didn't ask him to take his coat off, but put him on a scale and gave him a bottle of pills. Webb returned two days later. "What do you want?" the doctor inquired. "More pills," Webb said. "What happened to the other pills I gave you?" the doctor asked. Webb wasn't counting on being recognized. He shrugged helplessly. "I had a party," he said. As Webb told Wolf, the doctor asked no further questions and simply gave him another prescription.
Another doctor Webb investigated was rumored to be mentally unstable. "Gary went out to her house and she was out in the garage with a hose, washing down the floor, and she said, 'I am sluicing away the poison.' " Apparently the doctor believed her contractor was trying to kill her. To prove it, she pointed at her car, which was splattered with mud stains. "The bombs! The bombs!" she said. "She thought the mud stains on her car were from bombs," Wolf says. "She was nuts and the medical board knew it and didn't do anything."
In 1984, Webb teamed up with Bogdanich to uncover a conflict of interest scandal at the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority. Cleveland sits on Lake Eerie; its docks unloaded
shipping containers that came in through the Great Lakes from all over the world. All those containers needed insurance. A former school board president named Arnold Pinckney sat on the board of directors of the Port Authority. Pinckney also ran an insurance company and had sold $2 million worth of insurance to the Port Authority. Pinckney had recently been appointed campaign manager for Jesse Jackson's first presidential bid. His lawyers held a press conference to denounce the article as "woefully incomplete" and full of factual errors. The Plain Dealer refused to retract the story. "He was indicted and convicted, then pardoned, because he was such a popular guy," Bogdanich says.
The Port Authority story was the first and last time Bogdanich collaborated with Webb. "He went off in his direction and I went in mine," he says. "We were both pretty strong-willed people." Bogdanich recalls arguing with Webb over certain details of a follow-up story Webb planned to write about Pinckney. "I thought he was too certain of a particular fact," he says. "He came to a conclusion that I didn't agree with. I just walked away, saying, 'Gary, it's your story.' It was a minor fact, but it showed how strong-willed he was."
Shortly after the Port Authority story ran, Webb transferred to the paper's Columbus bureau. Bogdanich recalls going over to Webb's house frequently for dinner or to watch a movie. Webb's favorite film was Caddyshack. "To understand Gary, you have to appreciate that Rodney Dangerfield character, this boisterous guy throwing around tip money in a country club," Bogdanich says. "Webb didn't suffer fools gladly, or people who were pompous, although some people criticized Gary for being that way himself."
One night, while sitting at a bar in Columbus, the two paid tribute to Dangerfield by creating a public nuisance in a stuffy setting. "This bar was where all the lobbyists hung out," Bogdanich says. "We got roaring drunk and started talking loudly about how we were going to buy a bunch of state senators. We just figured that's what people talked about in that place. We laughed so hard we had tears streaming down our faces."
In the summer of 1984, Bogdanich got a job at the Wall Street Journal. One of his easier assignments there was covering a golf tournament, which happened to be near Columbus. He rang up Webb. All he had to do was show up on time, and write a light, humorous piece about how golf writers had the easiest job in the world. It wasn't as easy as he thought. "I was doing a story about golf writers not putting in any hours and drinking too much beer," Bogdanich recalls. "It was a bit ironic, because Gary and I got so damn drunk that day I showed up late to the golf tent."
Just before Bogdanich departed for the Wall Street Journal, he tagged along with Webb for a few interviews on a story involving the Budweiser Cleveland Grand Prix, a charity auto race at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. In an article titled "Driving Off With the Profits," Webb reported that the race's promoters paid themselves nearly $1 million from money that should have gone to the city, an apparent violation of their lease. The promoter sued The Plain Dealer for libel. The case dragged on for years -- long after Webb left the paper. Although none of Webb's facts were ever proven incorrect, the headline had implied more wrongdoing than the story had actually reported -- a flaw that would come back to haunt Webb with his "Dark Alliance" story. A jury eventually awarded the plaintiffs $13.6 million.
Because he had accompanied Webb on the interviews, Bogdanich nearly had to testify against his friend in court. "They were trying to get me to weigh in on my definition of the word 'profit,' " he says. "They tried to turn me against Gary, and it didn't work. I think the judge made some questionable rulings in that case. I know Gary was upset when the lawyers settled. He felt it could have been won on appeal."
Years later, after Webb published "Dark Alliance," The New York Times cited this settlement as evidence that Webb was a loose cannon prone to getting his facts wrong. But Gary Clark, then The Plain Dealer's managing editor and now managing editor for the Denver Post, says the paper never retracted the story because none of the facts were wrong, and all them came directly from public records. "The reporting was fine," Clark says. "The issue was a question of revenues versus profits, which was clear in the story, but not the headline. To shoulder Gary with the blame would be unfair."
Nobody at The Plain Dealer worked closer with Webb than Mary Anne Sharkey. As a reporter with the now-defunct Dayton Journal Herald in the early 1980s, she had read Webb's series on corruption in the coal industry for the Kentucky Post and was impressed enough to follow up on the story. She confronted Donald "Buz" Lukens about his alleged ties to the deceased mob figure Lester Lee. Lukens denied everything and tried to pressure Sharkey not to write her story. He failed. "Gary once told me I was the only journalist in the entire country to follow up on the Coal Connection," Sharkey says.
When Webb transferred to the Columbus bureau from The Plain Dealer's headquarters in Cleveland, Sharkey had been at the paper for two years and had been promoted to bureau chief. She had just finished an investigative series on conflicts of interest surrounding Ohio State University's medical school. The school's dean had a private practice operating out the school, which gave him a handsome profit, especially because his expenses, including his employees' salaries, were paid for by state taxpayers.
Webb had just finished his exposé on the state medical board when he got a call from the city coroner in Quincy, Illinois. The coroner told Webb to look into a doctor named
Michael Swango, a blond, blue-eyed paramedic who the coroner believed had poisoned half a dozen of his colleagues at an ambulance company in Quincy after being kicked out of Ohio State University's medical school. On several occasions, Swango had offered coffee and doughnuts to his co-workers, all of whom had experienced painful bouts of nausea and dizziness after consuming them.
"Gary called me because I had done all this work on Ohio State University," Sharkey recalls. She and Webb collaborated in an extensive investigation of Swango's tenure as an internist at Ohio State University's medical school. Between Webb's sources at the state medical board and Sharkey's contacts at the university, they discovered that both institutions had suspected Swango of killing several patients at the medical school's hospital, but instead of telling anyone, had simply covered it up to avoid bad publicity and lawsuits from the relatives of the patients who had died.
"Gary was one of the most meticulous and dogged investigators," Sharkey says. "I'd come in the office, and he'd been in there all night, reading documents. We were breaking stories that ran on the national wires. If the medical school and the state medical board had done their jobs, Swango wouldn't have gone on to kill so many people."
After being convicted of seven counts of aggravated battery for poisoning his colleagues, Swango spent five years in an Illinois prison. He bounced around the country under a false name, leaving dead patients in his wake, before ultimately finding a job at a clinic in Zimbabwe. He was finally arrested in 1997, when his flight from Africa to Saudi Arabia made a stop in Chicago. After a 2000 trial, a Virginia jury sentenced Swango to life in prison for fatally poisoning three patients there years earlier.
Webb would later tell Sharkey they should have written a book about Swango. "It was one of our biggest regrets that we never did that," she says. "But Webb was first and foremost a journalist. He was interested in writing news stories. He just couldn't conceive of a life outside journalism."
One story Sharkey had to keep away from was a 1986 article Webb wrote entitled, "Mob-Linked Groups Donate To Chief Justice," an exposé of Cleveland lawyer Frank Celebrezze. Webb obtained a list of contributions to Celebrezze's Ohio Supreme Court campaign from a Cleveland laborer's union with ties to organized crime. "Most of the union's officers had been arrested and convicted or tied by an FBI indictment to the mob," Sharkey says.
Sharkey had written about Celebrezze before, so The Plain Dealer's lawyers told her she couldn't help Webb with the story. After Celebrezze lost his re-election bid in a defeat widely attributed to Webb's reporting, he demanded a retraction. Webb's editors refused. Celebrezze sued the paper and won an undisclosed out of court settlement, which -- along with the previous settlement over Webb's story on the charity racetrack -- would later be cited by The New York Times as evidence that Webb was a bad reporter. But just as with the racetrack story, Webb's colleagues recall that the settlement ultimately came down to the story's headline, not the reporting. "The story was carefully constructed," Sharkey says. "The headline is actually what made them settle the case."
The settlement marked the second time Webb's reporting had cost his employer dearly. While his colleagues regarded him as an especially aggressive reporter, they reject the assertions that followed in the wake of "Dark Alliance" that Webb was particularly prone to lawsuits. Hard-hitting investigative reporters are supposed to get sued, he often remarked -- that's how you know you're doing your job. But given that the facts of his stories weren't proven wrong, Webb, for his part, felt betrayed by the settlement.
Webb and Sharkey continued to collaborate, with Webb doing the bulk of the reporting and investigative work, and Sharkey helping him by writing leads and shaping the copy. Occasionally, they would argue over the wording of a story, usually when Webb had inserted an over-the-top remark about a public official's apparent culpability high up in the piece. Webb respected Sharkey's abilities as an editor. He'd push her as far as he could, but would back off when she refused to cave in to his pressure.
"Gary was a challenging person to work with," Sharkey says. "But he was worth it. Sometimes you have a racehorse you have to flog to the finish line and sometimes you have a horse you have to pull the reins on. Gary was a reporter who needed you to pull the reins."
Together, they wrote several articles probing the extramarital activities of Columbus mayor Dana Rinehart, who was being probed by a grand jury for allegedly performing
cunnilingus on his fifteen-year-old babysitter. Although the police had closed the case without pressing charges, Webb filed a public records act request and got access to the case file. One of their stories revealed that while the babysitter had passed a police polygraph examination, Rinehart only agreed to take a test administered by his own expert.
The grand jury declined to indict Rinehart, but his behavior eventually caught up with him. In 1990, he admitted lying about an affair with a married woman, and chose
not to run for re-election. Six years later, Rinehart was arrested for drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident after slamming into the rear of a police cruiser.
One of the funniest pieces Webb ever wrote was essentially a photo essay, Sharkey recalls. Webb compiled a list of people who worked for Ohio Governor Dick Celeste and checked property records to see what homes they owned before and after Celeste took office. "It was just a pictorial," Sharkey says. "But it was really funny. All these guys --from his campaign manager and communications person to his deputy chief of staff and cabinet members -- lived in really modest houses and then moved into these big mansions after the election."
Gary had a "wonderful sense of humor," Sharkey adds. "He would get so tickled by these crooks. He would always be laughing really hard when we nailed one of them. He relished the showdown interview. He'd say, 'Now we have to publish their lies.' One of the ways people would harass each other in Columbus was by saying that Gary Webb of The Plain Dealer wants to interview you. It was a way of giving people heartburn."
Their collaboration ended in 1988 when Sharkey took a job in Cleveland as an editorial writer with The Plain Dealer. Webb wanted to succeed her as the Columbus bureau chief. But Gary Clark, the paper's managing editor, didn't think he'd fit that role. Neither did Sharkey. "I just didn't see him doing all the administrative work that needed to be done," she says.
As it turned out, the person chosen to fill the position was widely regarded as unqualified. Webb told Sharkey he'd quit his job before working for her replacement. She tried to convince him to wait it out, but Webb refused. "I will not work for him," Sharkey says Webb told her. "He's a fucking imbecile."
Andrzejewski and other reporters at the paper agreed with Webb's assessment. "The Plain Dealer had a knack for attracting some of the most draconian and in some cases, just plain dumb editors," he says. "That was a major failing of the paper. Gary was a gem they should have tried to keep. Why he left the paper is a complicated thing, but having editors who were totally inept didn't help."
Leaving The Plain Dealer became an even more attractive idea when Webb got a call from a recruiter with the Knight Ridder News Service, who asked if he might be interested in moving to California. The San Jose Mercury News needed an investigative reporter. Webb told the recruiter he couldn't afford to live in San Jose, but if they were willing to let him work in Sacramento, he'd be happy to cover state government. He told his editors at The Plain Dealer about the offer, and they begged him to stay, even offering a raise.
His wife Sue figured her husband would stay put. The Plain Dealer was scrambling to keep her husband happy and he seemed surprised, even touched, by the effort. They had a four-year-old son, Ian, an infant named Eric; they liked their neighborhood and enjoyed a tight-knit group of friends at the paper.
But one evening, Webb came home from work and told Sue he had accepted the job with the Mercury News. In response, The Plain Dealer had angrily given him one day to move out of his office before they changed the locks on the door to the Columbus bureau.
"Gary said we were moving to California," Sue says. "And that was that."