MIAMI — Days before Univision aired a controversial story this summer about the decades-old drug bust of Marco Rubio's brother-in-law, top staff with the Spanish-language media powerhouse offered what sounded like a deal to the U.S. senator's staff.
If Rubio appeared on Al Punto — Univision's national television show where the topic of immigration would likely be discussed — then the story of his brother-in-law's troubles would be softened or might not run at all, according to Univision insiders and the Republican senator's staff. They say the offer was made by Univision's president of news, Isaac Lee.
But Lee said in an email to the Miami Herald that any insinuation that he offered a quid pro quo was "incorrect" and "defamatory."
In a written statement Friday, Lee said: "With respect to Senator Rubio, Univision covered the story in the same objective, fair manner we cover every significant story. Univision did not offer to soften or spike a story ... we would not make such an offer to any other subject of a news story and did not offer it in this case."
Rubio never appeared on Al Punto, a national political affairs program broadcast on Sundays. Univision aired the story about Rubio's brother-in-law, a lower-level player in a 1987 coke-and-pot ring, on July 11.
"I always knew Univision to be a professional organization until this happened," said Rubio, who won't comment specifically on the case.
Pol vs. Press
The conflict provides a rarely seen view of a politician warring with the press, and it also underscores the highly charged issue of immigration in the Hispanic community.
Al Punto's host, Jorge Ramos, is one of Univision's most-recognized personalities and has advocated for the so-called "DREAM Act," which Rubio has opposed on the grounds that it gives "amnesty" to illegal immigrants. The long-debated proposal would allow certain children of undocumented immigrants to become legalized U.S. residents.
Univision, headquartered in Doral, is a top-rated network, reaching 95 percent of the 13.3 million Hispanic households in the United States. Its ratings are tops in prime-time in such cities as Los Angeles, San Antonio and Miami — regardless of language. It recently created an investigative team.
The Rubio brother-in-law story was its first investigation. The story about Rubio and his brother-in-law was broadcast in English and Spanish on television and the web over two days.
Univision also pointed the story out to the governor, and e-mailed reporters from Washington to Miami to highlight "Rubio's families ties to narco-trafficking." Univision hyped it on Twitter with the hashtag code "#rubio, # drugs."
Mainstream media sources and bloggers barely gave it play due to the quarter century-old nature of the case and the fact it had no apparent peg to current news.
Rubio found the story — and the resources devoted to it — especially shocking. He had actually worked for Univision as a paid commentator before he ran for Senate. He announced his candidacy for Senate on Univision's Miami affiliate.
Call from his sister
Earlier in the year, Rubio's office had planned to have a Miami Univision reporter follow him around Washington, D.C. — but Univision's higher-ups scotched the idea as they tried to persuade Rubio to appear on Al Punto.
On the night of July 5, Rubio received a call from his sister, Barbara Cicilia. She was distraught. A Univision reporter had called her about the arrest and incarceration of her husband, Orlando Cicilia, in the 1987 federal bust called "Operation Cobra." Rubio was 16 at the time. Before Rubio was elected to his first legislative seat, in 2000, Cicilia was cleared for early release.
Mrs. Cicilia refused comment. Univision then sent a news truck to sit outside their West Miami home.
On July 7, Alex Burgos, Rubio's communications director, and Rubio's political adviser, Todd Harris, held a 45-minute conference call with a handful of top Univision editorial staffers, including Lee, the news chief who handled most of the discussions for Univision. Harris represented Rubio as Burgos took notes. Rubio was not on the call.
Toward the end of the conversation, Lee brought up Ramos' show and suggested the drug-bust story could change — or not run at all, according to Harris and Burgos' notes.
Said Harris: "You're saying that if Marco does an interview with Ramos, that you will drop this investigation into his family and the story will never air?"
Lee, they say, responded with this statement: "While there are no guarantees, your understanding of the proposal is fair."
In his statement to the Herald, Lee disputes that. He said "various" people were on the call with Rubio's staff for what he said was an "off-the-record discussion" about the story, including two of the network's "top internal legal counsels."
Rubio and his office initially refused to discuss any aspect of the story with the Herald. But after Univision insiders spoke about the story, Rubio and his staff agreed to speak on the record.
The Herald obtained letters from Rubio's office to Univision in which Burgos denounced the story and reporting as "outrageous" and "tabloid journalism." Rubio's office confirmed their authenticity and later furnished a follow-up letter from Lee in which he again mentioned Al Punto and another show, Aqui y Ahora.
Some Univision employees said the story cast a pall over the Doral newsroom because this was its first investigative project, and many questioned the story's news value.
After he learned of the story, Rubio reached out to friends for advice and numerous go-betweens at Univision.
Republican fundraiser and consultant Ana Navarro said she spoke to Univision higher-ups in hopes of killing the story. She said Rubio's failure to appear on Ramos' show was a deciding factor in the drug story.
Navarro was later interviewed on air by Univision, and she discounted the story along with nearly everyone else the station interviewed for reaction.
At one point, she told Rubio to see the positive political aspects of the story: It would make him look good and Univision look bad.
"Don't you get it," she says he told her. "This isn't about me. It's about the pain this causes my mother and my sister."
Harris, Rubio's adviser, has worked for politicians from Gov. Jeb Bush to Sen. John McCain to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on major campaigns.
He said he was so surprised by Univision's tactics that, at one point, he confessed to Rubio that he might not be able to help.
"I've been doing this for a long time, but the new leadership in this newsroom doesn't play by any of the rules I'm used to," he said. "I'm used to going to war with the media from time to time, but this new team doesn't follow the Geneva Convention.'"
When the first story about the drug-bust broke, bloggers dismissed it as a non-story. Neither the Miami Herald nor El Nuevo Herald published the story. A New Times reporter called it "completely irrelevant."
"Here's a tip," reporter Matthew Hendley blogged. "If you're digging up dirt on a politician, try to find something a little filthier than Sen. Marco Rubio's brother-in-law being convicted of drug-trafficking charges when the senator was a 16-year-old kid."
Univision did find support for its report —in Scottsdale, Ariz., where an immigration-reform group called Somos Republicans took Rubio to task for saying Mexican drug-war violence had spilled into the United States.
Univision's Maria Elena Salinas, co-host of the Aqui y Ahora show that Rubio had also rebuffed, highlighted Somos Republicans by linking to a press release via a Tweet that read: "Marco Rubio knows from experience that Mexico and undocumented are not the only source of drug activity."
On yet another show, a Univision reporter brought up the case of Rubio's brother-in-law during an interview with Gov. Rick Scott.
"If something happened or if they discovered something about your brother in law — this is a hypothetical case — would you resign?" a reporter asked.
"Look, I got elected because of who I am," Scott said.
"Do you agree the public has the right to know?" she asked.
"I'm not sure about other families," Scott said. "I don't know whether they should ask other questions about families."