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Inside Phil's Newsroom: Personal Memories

City Desk Naples-Marco Island, Florida
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Gina Edwards
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Inside Phil’s Newsroom: Personal Memories

Phil Spoof Front Page

By Gina Edwards

As Phil Lewis embarks for new adventures after 35 years at the Naples Daily News, many former staffers have waxed nostalgic about his leadership and his journalism. It’s my honor to do the same here.

I grew up in Phil’s newsroom, the one on Central with dirty carpet and back copies of papers stacked so high on reporters’ desks they were once deemed a fire hazard. Strolling through the newsroom, Phil commanded respect with both his size and reputation. The reporters I worked with called him the “Tall Blond.”

He earned respect because of his passion for journalism. The corner office never insulated him. Phil was always a reporter first, hungry for his staff to get the next scoop.

In my years working with Phil, he was always calm and cool. Criticism was always private and constructive. I never heard him raise his voice or come unglued. This is unusual given that newsrooms are pressure cookers full of cuss words and egos and turf wars.

But despite the cool demeanor, those who had worked with Phil for years could read the worry on his face. “He’s stressed,” reporter Denise Zoldan would say. “He always breaks out when he’s worried.”

Many times, my reporting caused the worry. Over the 10 years I worked for Phil, a parade of people marched through the upstairs newsroom to pitch Phil on why he should fire me. The joke in the newsroom that hit too close to home was that Phil used to have friends before Gina started reporting on Stadium Naples.

Years later I received accolades and journalism awards for the Stadium Naples coverage. But it was Phil’s courage and his steadfast support that allowed these stories to make it into print and stir the public’s conscience.

Stadium Naples was the $100 million golf stadium brainchild of ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen that ultimately ignited a corruption scandal that resulted in the arrests of three Collier County commissioners, the former county manager and six private developer partners, including their attorney and Rasmussen.

The Stadium Naples stories got rolling just before Phil was promoted from managing editor to executive editor. I was 25 at the time, working the county government beat, and had been at the paper less than a year.

One day, while I was covering the county commission meeting, then County Commission Chairman John Norris pointed at me sitting in the back of the chamber and announced that I was lying and continuing to report facts I knew weren’t true. Norris had been publicly fighting with Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock over tourist tax money that had gone to support the Senior PGA golf tournament.

Phil had seen it all go down on TV, and when I got back to the newsroom, he asked me if I knew what Norris was talking about. I didn’t. Phil dashed off a letter to Norris and asked him to specify what facts he was referring to, noting that the paper would eagerly correct errors of fact.

Norris responded that I had wrongly reported that public dollars went to the foundation created and controlled by Rasmussen, and Phil asked me on what I’d based the reporting. I showed him copies of the county government checks to the foundation that tracked the public money and contradicted Norris’ claims.

I learned the most important lesson of my reporting career that day from Phil.

His job as editor was to trust but verify. My job as a reporter was to carefully document everything and keep organized. That lesson ultimately saved our jobs — and careers — when, seven years later, Rasmussen filed a retaliatory libel suit against the Naples Daily News, seeking $10 million.

By then, I had made it a habit to keep everything. I had amassed tens of thousands of documents — at least 20 banker boxes of public records, court documents, law enforcement reports, Securities and Exchange Commission filings, private documents, and interview notes. The documents allowed our attorneys from Baker and Hostetler to crush the case on summary judgment at the earliest possible stage when the trial court ruled there were no issues of fact in dispute.  The judge’s ruling was upheld by the Second District Court of Appeals. At the time, only five out of 45 summary judgment cases had been held up on appeal in the Second District. But we won and the case was finally over in 2006.

The story began in 1997 with no feat of investigative reporting: Late afternoon on a Friday, we got a faxed press release that casually disclosed that Norris was a partner in the Stadium Naples deal. Eric Staats and I broke the first story the next day. A few weeks later, I obtained a confidential business memo that showed that County Commissioner Norris knew he would receive a no-money-down 12.5 percent limited partnership stake in the $100 million Stadium Naples development months before he cast key votes to give Rasmussen’s foundation hundreds of thousands in public money to support the senior PGA golf tournament that was to be a marquee event for the stadium. Norris also had voted to waive audits of the public money, after the fact.

Such confidential private business documents give editors heartburn when they make their way into reporters’ hands. I hadn’t done anything to encourage the source to steal the private business document, so Phil opined I could use it in my reporting. Norris and his partners had been careful to legally form the partnerships after Norris had cast the key votes. But the memo was evidence that the terms of what Norris would get in the deal had been ironed out months before his votes.

We had the smoking gun.

The public outcry in the Letters to the Editor came immediately. I continued to dig up facts. Editorial Page Editor Jeff Lytle hammered the ethical issues on the editorial pages. Opinion columnist Brent Batten raised questions and followed up on his own earlier reporting about gifts and free golf given to the commissioners. Editorial cartoonist Mark Giaimo added biting satire.

Early on, there was heavy community pressure on Phil and Publisher Corbin Wyant to back off on the Stadium Naples stories. They wouldn’t. Both insulated me as much as possible from the high stress of that pressure. They had my back. Phil had set the standard that he would trust, but verify.

Just tell the readers what you know, Phil would say. And that meant what I could prove and document.

Corbin Wyant, Alan Horton and Phil Lewis

Corbin Wyant, Alan Horton and Phil Lewis in my unfortunately blurry picture at Phil's retirement party.

City editors Mike Cote, then Dave Rush and, by 1999, Allen Bartlett, coached my reporting and edited my stories. On the most sensitive pieces, Phil would come in on Saturdays to back-read my stories before they hit the Sunday paper. I can’t remember him ever changing or pulling anything. But I think Phil, like me, didn’t sleep on those many Saturday nights. It felt like we were holding our breath until Monday morning: That’s when we’d get into the office to see what email and phone call reaction the story had touched off.

In July 1997, the developer partners had backed out of Stadium Naples. Local prosecutors had a criminal corruption investigation underway. Then a new twist came.

In April 1998, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and investigators from the office of legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau raided the Naples brokerage firm A.S. Goldmen & Co. Weeks later, I reported that the brokerage firm — a high pressure boiler room — had a lengthy record of regulatory infractions and pump-and-dump market manipulation and that those brokers were hawking the penny stock of a public company that was partnering with Rasmussen on a resurrected Stadium Naples deal. I had obtained a copy of the confidential private placement agreement outlining the deal. An Atlanta attorney from the national law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton threatened to sue.

The explosive story, quoting state regulators and analysts, was a deal killer. Phil brought in an outside attorney to read the story to make sure it was watertight before we went to press. It was the first time the Naples Daily News had brought in an attorney to read a story before we published.

Later, we again called the lawyers when I received a cache of documents stolen from Marchiano’s firm. I had posted my contact info on a Yahoo Finance message board, and a stockbroker contacted me and wanted to meet. We met at The Clock restaurant on 41. He felt terrible about the people he’d lied to about Stadium Naples while hawking the stock. He handed me a paper bag full of his lead cards, the customer prospects he had pitched to buy stock in the Stadium Naples dream.

I spent the next few months cold calling A.S. Goldmen customers and collecting their stories.

Phil made us work hard to get it on the record — whatever the “it” we were pursuing might be.

Using an unnamed source in a story was strictly forbidden because Phil rightly thought it would cheapen our credibility. Only once in 10 years, did Phil give me permission to quote unnamed sources – two stockbrokers from Marchiano’s boiler room who added color to my investigative piece on the firm. Marchiano’s mob ties, long rumored but not proven, put the sources’ safety in question.

Southwest Florida’s elected state attorney closed his Stadium Naples criminal investigation late in 1998, weeks after the publication of our 5-page special report on fraud involving A.S. Goldmen’s revived Stadium Naples deal with Millenium Sports Management Inc., the Nasdaq-listed penny stock company. The prosecutor had handed out immunity to key players, and the closed case left some veteran law enforcement officials perplexed.

In spring 1999, after combing through years of financial disclosure records, I broke the story that the elected prosecutor, Joe D’Alessandro, owned stock in the obscure penny stock company that was partnering on Stadium Naples, Millenium Sports – during his investigation. If the prosecutor’s office had indicted Rasmussen, it would have killed the stock.

Fresh outrage about the prosecutor’s conflict of interest ensued and local Republican Party leaders called on Gov. Jeb Bush and the FDLE to investigate. Bush asked the feds to intervene.

By summer, I had documented in New York indictments the ties of a dozen of Marchiano’s brokers to mob families. The mob-on-Wall Street investigations out of New York had a Naples angle.

In July 1999, we got a tip-off that we should be in Manhattan the following day. Phil didn’t hesitate to put me and photographer Dan Wagner on a plane to LaGuardia that evening. With Marchiano’s indictment, the Stadium Naples tentacles stretched all the way to the Manhattan case.

As I began to pepper the DA’s office with public record requests, the prosecutors refused to turn over records that New York’s Office of Open Government said should be open. Phil wanted to know what else the DA’s files might contain about the Stadium Naples corruption case — as did I. He wouldn’t back down. He pitched corporate and received backing from news division head Alan Horton to file a public records lawsuit against the DA’s office in Manhattan. Eventually, we lost. But it was an extraordinarily bold move for a small town editor.

I followed the Manhattan case. And in Naples, the corruption investigation took on fresh life. Local prosecutors filed criminal charges against Norris, but later the governor appointed a special prosecutor to take over after Judge Lauren Miller threw them off the case over the prosecutor’s conflict of interest.

When police found two former A.S. Goldmen brokers murdered execution-style in the small New Jersey town where A.S. Goldmen’s chief financial officer, Marchiano’s twin brother, and two former Naples brokers lived, I begged Phil to go and cover the story. Phil found a way to say yes.

But the trip took a frightening turn: After photographer Dan Wagner had left Friday evening, two town cops pulled me over on a mall access road, slapped the cuffs on me and arrested me for driving on a suspended license after questioning me as to why I was there. They took me by an ATM machine to get $600 cash when I informed them, crying, that I didn’t know anyone in the town to bail me out.

Back at the station, they took me to an interview room where one of the officers told me he went to high school with the Naples stockbrokers, the DelCioppo brothers, and that he had at one time worked at A.S. Goldmen. I never saw the night judge, but the cops told me all the cash in my wallet was enough for the bail. They drove me back to my hotel room and warned me that if they saw the rental car move so much as an inch, they’d be back to throw me in jail.

Allen Bartlett and Todd Pratt

Allen Bartlett and Todd Pratt

I called the City Desk before I called my husband. City Editor Allen Bartlett got Phil. Reporter Brigid O’Malley, working the night shift, couldn’t find any Florida reference to my license being suspended. I stayed walled in my hotel room for three nights until I could leave. By that time we had learned that a late fee on my driver’s license renewal had triggered a flag in the DMV system. Several weeks later, I found my cat, “Daily,” shot and laying on my front door step. My husband and I told our parents – and we told ourselves -- that it was probably a crazy neighbor.

Eventually, A.S. Goldmen’s chief financial officer was convicted of hiring a hit man to try to kill Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, who was presiding over the stock fraud case. The bizarre plot inspired a “Law & Order” episode to capture the real life drama in the courthouse at 100 Centre Street.

The Stadium Naples case took another outrageous turn in early 2000 when Barron’s magazine exposed one of the Stadium Naples partners, David Mobley, as the architect of a massive Ponzi scheme. As I followed the SEC case against him, I noticed a reference to a loan that Mobley had made to a company called Educorp that wasn’t paid back. There was a one-line reference in Exhibit H of a lengthy report of the receivership. I recognized the company name from Commissioner Tim Constantine’s financial disclosure forms. After several weeks, we broke the story that Constanine had received a $100,000 business loan with sweetheart terms that had never been paid back. The story touched off public outrage again. Constantine’s supporters aimed fresh criticism at the Naples Daily News.  

In early 2001, Phil had sent me to Manhattan to cover the Marchiano trial. The trial was supposed to last three months, but it lasted for seven. Jilted customers from around the country followed our coverage on the web. After four months, one of the former Naples brokers on trial approached me in the courtroom before the day’s proceedings got under way and told me I had one more shot at getting myself killed by reporting what was about to happen. He then went behind closed doors and pleaded guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors.

I called City Desk Editor Allen Bartlett. He told Phil, who wanted me to come home that night. I was scared, but I didn’t want to leave and stop covering the trial. “Do it for your editor,” Phil said. “I won’t sleep until I know you’re home safe.”

I eventually returned to New York and went back to my rented apartment room off Mott Street and covered the remainder of the trial, coming home just weeks before 9-11.

The Stadium Naples case, by then a racketeering behemoth brought by the special prosecutor, played out in Collier for two more years. After a series of plea deals, nine of the 10 defendants pleaded to reduced or related charges, with all charges dropped against one defendant. Only Commissioner Constantine served jail time. The case finally ended in 2004. Then we got sued. Two stressful years later, Stadium Naples was done.

Over the years, I received national, state and regional journalism awards and recognition for the Stadium Naples work: But Phil had put the weight of the entire newsroom behind me – editors, copy editors, page designers, graphic artists, photographers, web editors, and especially the editorial page. But I wasn’t alone in receiving this kind of support from Phil.

Election Night 2000

Phil Lewis loved election night.

Executive editors rarely edit reporters’ stories, except for the most sensitive ones. It’s the job of the City Editor to oversee reporters producing local stories about government and politics and coordinate election night coverage. The shear amount of coordination and organization involved in getting the paper out on election night always left me awestruck.

Everyone in the small newsroom — reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors and page designers, web editors — had to do their job well and fast. The margin of error was minutes. Phil, who worked his way up from reporter to city editor to managing editor to finally executive editor, loved to be there to watch it all come together on election night like a well-oiled machine.

There are certain decisions only the executive editor can make. Stopping the press is one of them because it costs thousands of dollars to do so. In a scene right out of the movies, I actually watched Phil dash back to the pressroom from the downstairs copy desk to yell “Stop the Press” on election night 2000. The press had already run 10,000 copies of “Bush Wins” before Phil, standing over reporter Brigid O’Malley’s shoulder, dictated a new lead and headline. Too close to call. It was 3 a.m.

The press and the proverbial buck stop and start with the executive editor.

Phil and his newsroom helped launch and nurture the careers of many talented reporters and photographers: Brigid O‘Malley’s “Above the Law” series chronicled the dealings of corrupt cops in Immokalee; Alan Zaiger told the heartbreaking stories of heroine overdoses on Marco Island in “Poisoning Paradise;” Janine Zeitlin documented modern day slavery in a four-day series on human trafficking. Diana Smith gave a voice to the voiceless Haitian community in her beautiful feature stories; Ralf “Ted” Kircher explained the threat to Southwest Florida’s most crucial resource in his story “Water;” Denise Zoldan brought attention to a local church’s mission to combat AIDS in Africa; Liam Dillon served as a watchdog during the building of Ave Maria; Marc Caputo dug into Everglades politics; Miriedy Fernandez exposed wasted tax money at the North Naples Fire Department; Cathy Zollo’s reporting launched the Daily News’ 15-part series called “The Gulf in Peril.” The multimedia series “Paradise at What Cost” explained the area’s affordable housing crisis. Visual guru Eric Strachan put the Daily News on the national journalism map for outstanding photography by nurturing talented photographers like Dan Wagner, Ben Gray, Lisa Krantz, Cameron Gillie, Erik Kellar, Judy Lutz, Lexey Swall, David Ahntholz, David Carson, Jason Easterly, Tristan Spinski and graphic artist Kori Rumore. Bonita editor Todd Pratt and Assistant City Editor Michelle Batten provided leadership on the desk. Bill Blanton. Chuck Curry. Victor Epstein. AnneElena Foster. Jeremy Cox. Phil Borchmann, Jonathan Foerster. Kim Folstad. Maria Cote. Ray Parker. Deirdre Conner. Larry Hannan. Chris Colby. Jill Higgins. Laura Layden. Eric Staats, Liz Freeman. Andy Kent. Derek Redd. Pat Finley. Greg Hardwig. Kris Kudenholdt. Mike Hayes. Tom Hanson. Nancy Evans. There are many more talented journalists who have worked in Phil’s newsroom, too many to name here. Jeff Lytle and Brent Batten are Naples treasures.

I left the Naples Daily News in 2006, and I cried for weeks after I resigned. I told Phil that I couldn’t imagine that my own father could have treated me any better than he did. He asked: “How can you go? You’re the one with the passion.”

“That’s why I have to go,” I told him.

I had always dreamed of one day being the editor of the Naples Daily News. But I told Phil then that I wouldn’t want his job. That dream died with the realization that the newspaper business model couldn’t survive. Scripps had decided to spend tens of millions on a new building. Alan Horton had retired as head of the Scripps news division. And the corporate winds and commitment to investigative reporting had shifted.

I left then with the desire to build a different model to help sustain investigative reporting. The financial crisis intervened. It’s taken almost four years to build Watchdog City, and its future is a gamble. But the foundation of investigative reporting we learned at the Naples Daily News and the care and teaching of great mentors like Phil Lewis and City Editor Allen Bartlett is what drives co-founder Cathy Zollo and I. We care too deeply about public service journalism to sit back and watch it die. Our hope is to help other journalists and a new generation of reporters rebuild investigative reporting in their cities and carry the best journalistic traditions online.

We had a newsroom staff of more than 100 the day I left. When Phil left the newsroom in June 2013, the newsroom was barely a third of that size.

Originally published Sept. 2, 2013

Contact Gina Edwards at or by phone at 239-514-1336.

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