tampabay.com

Reporter's departure 'controversial'

Critics of the Tampa Tribune's Sami Al-Arian stories said the writer had ties to his new boss.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published May 8, 2007


On Monday, Tampa Tribune investigative reporter Michael Fechter quit his job to work as a writer and editor for Steven Emerson, director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

Fechter will focus on Islamic extremists.

For more than 10 years, Fechter, like Emerson, claimed in his writing that University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was criminally linked to the terrorist activity of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel. Fechter did not name Emerson as a source. Emerson, however, used Fechter's writing to bolster his own claims about Al-Arian, which critics suspect originated with tips from Emerson.

"We always had suspicions that Fechter was virtually an agent for Emerson, " said Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Now we know that their relationship was close enough for Emerson to hire Fechter and for Fechter to take the job. So much for objective reporting."

Michael Fechter denied that Emerson unduly influenced him.

"My work on Al-Arian was 99 percent driven by documents, not Emerson, " he said. "The documents showed Al-Arian had links to a terrorist group and lied about it. Maybe there was no violent, criminal activity there, but the connection was real."

In 2006, after a jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight counts of links to terrorism and deadlocked on nine others, Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of providing nonviolent aid to associates of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Fechter said he had hoped to work at the Tribune for two more weeks but was asked by his bosses to leave today.

"Steven Emerson is controversial. Michael Fechter is controversial. That Michael is going to work for Steven is controversial. To put separation between them and the paper, we asked Michael to leave today, rather than wait, " said Janet E. Coats, the newspaper's executive editor.

"I can't complain, " said Fechter. "For years, the Tribune took grief for me and never once buckled."