Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stubborn, stubborn facts

Posted By on Sat, Sep 10, 2011 at 10:45 AM

John Adams famously declared, “Facts are stubborn things.” That quote came to mind as I read the various media tirades against WWL radio talk show host Garland Robinette, who is accused of selling out to wealthy landfill owner Fred Heebe Jr., who is under federal investigation.

Adams’ quote comes from his impassioned closing argument in defense of eight British soldiers accused of murder during the Boston Massacre of 1770. It occurs to me that some salient facts have been consistently omitted from accounts of Robinette’s transgressions.

I write this not to defend Robinette — whom I consider, by way of disclosure, a professional friend — but merely to present additional facts, to posit that even more facts may yet come to light, and to suggest that final judgment be withheld until then.

First, let’s review what’s been presented thus far: Robinette rose to hero status in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He gave voice to south Louisianans who felt abandoned by local, state and federal governments. He also took up the cause — as did many in the media, including Gambit — of eastern New Orleans residents who, in addition to losing everything in the federal flood, suddenly found themselves living near a massive under-regulated dumpsite that was being filled daily with all manner of potentially toxic storm debris. Robinette, a veteran environmental reporter, gave voice to this particularly powerless group of New Orleanians. This was in late 2005 and 2006. Remember that, for timing is a crucial fact in this narrative.

At one point — but definitely before the loan from Heebe — Robinette visited The Times-Picayune with an offer to turn over previously undisclosed government documents that he felt proved that the eastern New Orleans dump site would become a health hazard, possibly a Superfund site. The newspaper’s editors declined his offer, saying their reporters were already on the story. (They recently claimed that Robinette’s offer was “unusual,” but I and other reporters have passed along tips to the TP many times, for the same reason Robinette approached them in 2006: The One Big Daily has more resources than all other area newsrooms combined.)

Meanwhile, Robinette continued to rail against the eastern New Orleans dumpsite.

Now here’s a fact that somehow has escaped the media’s attention, even though it is common knowledge:
The following year, in October 2007, Robinette contracted a rare, life-threatening disease and was given less than two years to live. To make matters worse, his vocal chord was severed during a medical procedure, leaving him unable to speak. Now he was faced with the prospect of either dying within two years or surviving without being able to earn a living.

Robinette made a decision that people facing their own mortality often make: He turned to a passion he felt he had not fulfilled in his life, which was painting. It is undisputed that he is a gifted artist. He decided to open a studio and use his remaining time to paint, but he needed money to do that.

Here’s where the media narrative picks up again. He asked several wealthy acquaintances to lend his wife money, secured by a piece of property she owns on the Northshore. He was asking a personal favor, no doubt about it, but anyone who knows anything about borrowing money knows that no bank would ever lend $250,000 to a dying man, particularly one who would not be able to work even if he survived.

Fred Heebe, who has extensive real estate holdings, agreed to make the loan. This was in October 2007.

Now, let’s not be naïve here. While it was generous of Heebe to make the loan — interest free — he very well may have had ulterior motives. He owns a large and very successful landfill that could have brought him even more millions had FEMA used his landfill and not eastern New Orleans. But remember: this was in October 2007, not right after the storm or in 2006. Up to then, all of Robinette’s comments on the eastern New Orleans landfill mirrored those of others in the media.

Another salient fact: Heebe at that time was not under federal scrutiny. That investigation didn’t begin until about two years later, in late 2009 or early 2010.

After five months off the air, Robinette not only beat the disease but also got enough of his voice back to return to the air in 2008.

Now here’s where Robinette, in my opinion, made his mistakes, and they were two:

First, as soon as possible after returning to work — or at least immediately upon learning that Heebe was in the federal crosshairs — Robinette should have gone to a bank and borrowed enough money to repay Heebe, who had become radioactive.

Second, Robinette should have disclosed the loan — and its repayment — not only to his employers but also to his listeners. He failed to do either of those things, and those mistakes are now costing him dearly.

But do those mistakes make Robinette a “sellout,” as some now claim?

Clearly, Robinette had an ethical dilemma, which he should have addressed and disclosed. Friend or not, I cannot excuse his mistakes — but I do not join those who proclaim him a sellout. There are too many stubborn facts in the way.

My other friends in the media may criticize me for taking this position, but my loyalty is not to them or even to Robinette; it is to those stubborn, stubborn facts.

Which brings me back to John Adams, who was ostracized by his fellow Bostonians for defending the soldiers accused of murder. The full text of his quote is instructive: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

After all the facts were presented into evidence in 1770, six of the eight soldiers were acquitted. Two were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Shouldn’t we consider all the facts in Robinette’s case as well?

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