By Joshua Benton and Chris Osher
Blade Staff Writers
Chester Devenow, a retired Toledo industrialist, called last night for the removal of the president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority because the leader banned agency officials from talking to reporters in the wake of articles about their spending of federal drug-forfeiture funds.
James Hartung, port authority president, said in a letter to The Blade yesterday that his agency will only respond to questions submitted to him in writing.
Mr. Hartung issued his order the same day the newspaper reported that the Toledo FBI office will examine federal drug-forfeiture fund expenditures by the port authority to determine if federal laws or procedures had been broken.
“I’d like to know when this dictator was created,” said Mr. Devenow, retired chairman of the former Sheller-Globe Corp. and former chairman of Trustcorp, Inc. “I’d like to know how he can justify not having a free press examine any and all aspects of the port authority.
“I consider it totally outrageous. I think the port authority ought to take steps to remove him.”
Mr. Devenow was appointed in 1992 by then-Mayor John McHugh to lead a committee to help select port authority directors. Half the board’s members are appointed by Toledo’s mayor with city council confirmation and half by the Lucas County commissioners. A 13th member is a joint city-county appointment.
Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said last night that calls for Mr. Hartung’s ouster are premature.
“I don’t see anything that, at the moment, I think justifies that call,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.
Sandy Isenberg, president of the county commissioners, said Mr. Devenow’s call is premature, but she said it should be reviewed by the authority’s board.
“I think that the port authority that is there, based on their own professional review, needs to examine that,” she said. “I think that Jim [Hartung] has done a good job, but he’s just feeling beat up right now.”
Ms. Isenberg said she was “taken aback” at news of the port’s new ban.
“If you’re a public agency, it’s a little tough to say to the only newspaper in town that you can’t cover us,” she said.
“There is no public agency that is going to agree with the news media 100 per cent of the time on how it’s covered on any given issue or any given subject. I look at it that you really have to roll with the punches. You need to be able to get over this issue and move forward.”
Ms. Isenberg said she would not have made a similar move in Mr. Hartung’s position.
“I think it only adds fuel to the fire that has been there and simmering for some time,” she said.
County Commissioner Mark Pietrykowski said last night that he thought Mr. Hartung’s directive was “inappropriate.”
The staff “should certainly be able to talk to the press,” and some matters could always be referred to the director, Mr. Pietrykowski said.
“I don’t think a gag order is the answer,” he added.
County Commissioner Bill Copeland declined comment.
Leading journalism educators and members of press associations denounced Mr. Hartung’s move.
“It’s the dumbest thing they could do,” said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“There’s an absolute responsibility to come clean with the public on the use of public money. And a responsible agency, and even a responsible business, gets ahead of journalists’ questions and concerns rather than hiding in a bunker,” he said.
Mr. Hartung said in his letter to The Blade that he felt the newspaper had violated the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists by subjecting the port authority to “incomplete and inaccurate reporting.”
He did not specify what he felt was wrong in the newspaper’s coverage.
Steve Geimann, the former chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists and the chairman of the group’s ethics committee, said that if Mr. Hartung has concerns about the newspaper’s coverage he should point them out.
“I’m appalled that a public institution would resort to this cowardly tactic,” Mr. Geimann said. “They are hiding behind the code of ethics, and that’s not what it’s intended to do.
“The code of ethics gives the port authority a venue to discuss and challenge news coverage, not create artificial, tortured procedures that will hinder the news from getting out,” he said.
Mr. Geimann said he had never heard of the code being used to justify not speaking with reporters and called it “the most unusual interpretation I’ve ever heard of.”
The FBI review was prompted by a Page 1 article Sunday that reported the agency used federal drug funds to buy:
* A $26,500 sport utility vehicle for use by Mark VanLoh, director of Toledo Express Airport.
* $20,000 in exercise equipment for a gym for airport police.
* A $2,226 desk for the downtown office of Mr. Hartung.
* Baseball-type trading cards featuring Buster, the airport’s drug-sniffing dog, at a cost of $370.
Mr. Hartung denounced the news article in another letter, sent Monday to the 13-member board that governs his agency.
“The Blade has again chosen to question the purity of the port authority’s stewardship in its story yesterday on use of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) `Assets Forfeiture’ funds,” Mr. Hartung wrote in his letter to the board.
“While this administration has never claimed infallibility, it remains confident that all port authority business has been conducted in a manner that is both proper and ethical,” he wrote.
The port authority has asked the drug agency to review the expenditures from the drug fund, which is financed with money seized during drug arrests, to determine whether any money was misused.
The state auditor’s office is considering conducting a special audit of the drug fund.
In his letter to board members, Mr. Hartung said DEA officials originally had approved use of a vehicle purchased with forfeited funds by the port authority’s airport director in 1991.
After a reporter began questioning Mr. VanLoh’s use of a 1996 Ford Explorer purchased with forfeited drug funds, the port authority asked the Drug Enforcement Administration for a new ruling. The agency then expressed reservations.
Mr. Hartung said the airport director has stopped using the vehicle and will continue to abide by the drug agency’s “new interpretation.”
Mr. Hartung’s decision to require Blade reporters to submit their questions in writing was on the advice of the agency’s attorney, said James Poure, the chairman of the port authority board.
Mr. Poure declined to comment on how his agency has spent drug-fund money.
“I really feel it would be improper for me to make any comment with the investigation going on,” Mr. Poure said.
Gary Stewart and Tom Brady, members of the board, and Beverly McBride, the agency’s vice chairman, all declined comment.
Board members Mark Zyndorf and Dr. Richard Ruppert said the agency has done nothing improper.
The board’s seven other members did not return telephone messages seeking comment.