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A front-page article in early June by Deborah Tedford, the Chronicle's federal courthouse reporter, ruffled local U.S. Attorney Gaynelle Griffin Jones and raised concerns by Mayor Bob Lanier. The piece featured claims that the former chief agent-in-charge of the Houston FBI office, Mike Wilson, had to pull strings in Washington to get Justice Department officials to continue his agency's City Hall investigation after Jones refused to do so. In response, Jones issued a statement claiming the article was inaccurate and that she had never declined possible charges, but rather had recused herself because of a former relationship with a target of the sting. The reported dissension between the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office provoked Lanier to write Attorney General Janet Reno, asking her to get her subordinates to stop squabbling and share some of the probe information with city officials.
Reno has now answered Lanier with a letter that takes several swipes at the credibility of the Chronicle report. "Unfortunately, the Houston Chronicle article enclosed with your letter was incorrect in several material respects," Reno wrote. She repeats Jones' assertion that the investigation was referred to the Justice Department's public integrity section by Jones, and not the FBI. Further, Reno backed Jones' claims that her office had never declined possible charges arising from the investigation. Reno also labeled as false the allegations by some blacks and Hispanics that the FBI had targeted officials based on race or ethnicity.
Tedford is standing by her story, saying, "I am aware through sources in the U.S. Attorney's Office that the office did decline to prosecute. But I'm not going to get into semantic games with Gaynelle." Tedford says that while Jones did not issue an official opinion declining to pursue the FBI's cases, her assistants verbally indicated to the FBI that they didn't feel the investigation had turned up much. Tedford still contends that former agent Wilson felt it was much more important than that, and took the matter to the Justice Department in Washington.
Reno also appeared to brush aside Lanier's request that the feds share information on the probe. "It is the general policy of this department not to reveal specific facts about ongoing investigations," she declared. But at the end of her missive, the attorney general effectively confirmed what Lanier told the Press two weeks ago: that the FBI is indeed sharing information on a limited basis with Rusty Hardin, the lawyer retained by the city to advise the mayor on the probe. "I understand they have been able to address some previous questions expressed by you and the city attorney," wrote Reno, "and I assure you they will continue to give any requests from you and your staff every consideration." With that, The Insider nominates Reno for our Bureaucratic Doublespeaker of the Year.
Channel 13 president and general manager Jim Masucci's surprise resignation and immediate departure last week after a meeting with Disney news executive Larry Pollack provoked few tears around the station. Masucci's earlier decision not to come back from his Maine vacation to attend the funeral of veteran 13 reporter Steve Gauvain last month had shocked the bereaved staff and eroded Masucci's already dwindling base of support at KTRK. The 64-year-old Masucci also didn't bother with so much as a call to Dwight Payne, the photographer who was at the wheel when Gauvain's news vehicle blew a tire, flinging the reporter to his death. Less than an hour earlier, the 51-year-old Gauvain had been on the air doing a live shot.
"You really needed someone at that point to pull the staff together and say, 'It's going to be okay,' " says one 13 staffer. "[Masucci] just wasn't there. There were a lot of people who felt that really said a whole lot about how much each one of us are worth [to him]."
As to whether Masucci's sudden departure was in fact a firing prompted by his perceived insensitivity to Gauvain's death, the staffer says, "We all hoped it might play some role, because at least it would imply that even in a humongous corporation like Disney, people still matter."
Masucci was unavailable to the media after his resignation. He left a brief note indicating his departure was voluntary and based on a decision to slow down and enjoy his considerable wealth. But the note displayed a stunning bit of insensitivity to the bad feelings churned up by his decision to ignore the funeral. "I just spent two weeks on the coast of Maine, where I realized there is life after television," he wrote blithely. Back in Houston, Steve Gauvain's friends were realizing that sometimes there isn't.
The Insider is available by phone at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax) or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.