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Swamp sales to out-of-towners was story of a lifetime

Prior to her retirement next month, Times Business Editor Elizabeth Whitney is writing her recollections of nearly 28 years at the St. Petersburg Times. Last week she described her introduction to St. Petersburg and the Times in 1962-67 when she was editing the religion and real estate sections. Today she recalls 1967-1979 _ her "initiation by fire" as a reporter, the women's movement and forays into investigative reporting. This is not a history, just one person's remembrance of the way it was. Tonight was the night. At 5 p.m. Sept. 29, 1967, it would either be a deal or no deal for Bayfront Plaza, the high-rise Florida Power headquarters-convention hotel-apartment complex expected to spark the renewal of downtown St. Petersburg.

For months every quirk in the complicated deal _ involving air rights, loan commitments, agreements for this and contracts for that _ had been reported by the Times veteran real estate analyst who had retired. Now I was to go to the Princess Martha Hotel for a press conference.

At 5 we were told that the closing had just begun. At 11:45 the press conference was finally convened with only about half of the original media contingent still there. It was too late for the 11 p.m. TV news, and the St. Petersburg Evening Independent didn't publish until the next afternoon. It was clearly a morning-paper story, and I assumed that professional courtesy would dictate that the Tampa Tribune reporter and I ask our questions first.

But the Independent reporter took the floor, slowly asking a rambling series of what seemed to me were dumb questions. I glared and fumed. Then it hit me: he is trying to keep me from getting the story! I interrupted in a strong voice, asked my questions, raced back to the office, told the editors that it was a whole new deal and rolled the copy paper into my typewriter.

By then it was after 1 a.m. and the front page had to go to the printing plant at 1:30. Managing editor Robert Haiman was standing behind me. I wrote the rather freewheeling lead that popped into my head.

"I like it! I like it!," Haiman said, "keep going."

The first paragraph was torn off, rushed to editing, sent to the composing room, whisked to a linotype operator to set the type that was to be put in the page form. Paragraph after paragraph, this nerve-wracking process continued.

It was later referred to as my "initiation by fire." I showed that the soft-news feature lady could write hard news and do it under deadline pressure.

Nearly three years after I came to the newsroom, I got my big break. I was sent, as a substitute, to cover the Florida Land Sales Board in Tampa.

At the meeting _ also covered by the Associated Press, the Tampa Tribune and the Miami Herald _ the board's vice chairman predicted a "first-class scandal" unless sales of "unusable land" were outlawed.

The next day I called the board attorney, Stewart D. Allen of Miami, and asked why Florida allowed such a fraud. He said if I would meet with him and vice chairman J. Norman Romoser in Tampa the next evening, they would tell me what they knew.

Over dinner I learned that the industry's new sales vehicle, ideal for selling this unusable land, was high-pressure telephone pitches repeated all over the country through the still quite new Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines. The center of these WATS-line land sales operations was Miami.

Board attempts to toughen the law, they explained, repeatedly had been thwarted by a "small but powerful lobby" of land promoters organized as the Florida Land Association (FLA). The list they gave me of FLA's 40 members had none of the well-known names in the land sales industry. FLA clearly specialized in cheap, unimproved land.

The next day I related all this to Donald K. Baldwin, Times editor and president.

"What is it they (my sources) want your stories to accomplish?" Baldwin asked.

"They want some legislation," I said, which seemed to satisfy him that the Times wasn't being used.

"In that case we'll have to publish no later than the first week in May," he said, when the state Legislature would still have time enough to act in its spring session. "That means you'll have to do all the reporting and all the writing in six weeks," Baldwin said. "That's a lot. Do you think you can do it?"

I said I thought I could.

Baldwin tilted his chair back and looked out his window. "You know," he said slowly, "we just might win a Pulitzer with this one."

Only a reporter who has experienced it can know the excitement that grips you, that absolutely takes over your life, in your first big investigation. It had an unreal quality, as if I might wake up and find that I wasn't really about to be matching wits with career crooks. Adding the possibility of journalism's most prestigious award made the excitement almost unbearable.

Tracking down the facts

Investigative reporting over the last 25 years has become something of a science. Investigative teams sprouted in the late 1960s-early 1970s at Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. This newspaper organized a projects team in 1979. The Investigative Reporters and Editors, now a national organization of 3,000 members, was formed in 1975, after the Washington Post's landmark Watergate investigation.

But 20 years ago investigative reporting was much as it had been through journalistic history and the great muckraking era right after the turn of this century _ largely a solitary exercise.

My first stop was Miami. I visited several WATS-rooms with a land agency investigator who introduced me as a reporter. I interviewed members of the Florida Land Association and combed the files of the Miami Herald morgue (as I had done earlier at the Times) for information on these men and their companies. In Tampa I spent days at the land board office going through files of consumer complaints, property inspection reports and interviewing the agency's executive director, Lowell W. Steve.

Then I was ready to write. Instead of having to work amid the newsroom hubbub, I was assigned to a small writing room containing a desk and a typewriter. There I wrote an eight-part series _ writing days, nights and weekends _ in 2{ weeks.

Toward the end of the marathon, my brain would get so tired I couldn't think from the beginning to the end of a simple sentence. One night I must have been especially weary. Intending to call the home of land board attorney Allen in Miami, instead I reached Morton Rothenberg, the lawyer mastermind of the Florida Land Association, himself the owner of four swamp properties.

Rothenberg allowed me to stammer awhile. Then he said smoothly, "Honey, you didn't call the cops. You called the robbers."

Making the story come to life

"The Swamp Peddlers" series _ with color photos, maps, cartoons, catchy headlines _ was splashed over much of the front of section B (only national stories ran on 1A in those days). Simultaneously, my series was running in the Miami Herald.

It had surprising impact. In the Roaring Twenties, of course, the sale of underwater land in Florida to naive Yankees was a national scandal along with selling shady stocks in high-pressure telephone "boiler rooms" or "bucket shops." But the subsequent collapse of both the 1920s Florida Land Boom and the soaring stock market had brought a soothing wave of regulation. As a result, in 1970 the conventional real estate industry, the press and the public generally believed selling subdivided swamp was history. So it was an even bigger shock to learn that it was now big business.

In telling the story my aim was to take faceless, bare-bones information, flesh it out and make it sexy. The opener set the tone.

"Greetings from sunny Miami Beach," the voice on the phone says brightly. "I'm Joe Stein, the regional director for International Land and Development Corp. down in Miami.

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After reporting his spiel, I explained: "This high-powered regional director is dressed in tight Italian silk pants and a stretched-out banlon shirt, and looks like a cross between a middle-aged hippie and a pool-hall habitue. His private office is a niche on the wall covered with soundproofing squares, like a sit-down phone booth with no door. If his words seem to flow easily, they should: he's reading from a prepared script."

To the surprise of the South Florida press, I reported that some 600 Joe Steins in 13 WATS rooms call 4.5-million people a year, day and night, 364 days a year _ all out of Miami.

Then I named the members of the Florida Land Association and outlined their "colorful backgrounds," ranging from mail fraud to illegal gambling. But the swamp peddlers had political clout, I reported, partly because they had influential spokesmen _ a former governor and several former land sales regulators.

I told what "unusable land" really meant _ a lot in the middle of a subdivided lake, swampland usable only with drainage forbidden by environmental laws or land reachable "only by horse, motorcycle, boat, swamp buggy or helicopter and probably the aid of a surveyor."

These land merchants could buy a multimillion-dollar tract with $5,000 down, spend nothing for improvements and sell off the lots for five times what they paid.

It was fraud, but it was legal, because to prohibit the sale of such land would probably violate private contract rights. But I enumerated other means to the same end. In the 1970 legislative session, though, nothing happened. The filing of new bills was cut off early. It took many years and the efforts of many people before Florida rid itself of this scourge.

The lack of immediate legislative results, of course, took the series out of contention for the Pulitzer. But it did win what was then dubbed "the Florida Pulitzer," the single annual prize awarded by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors (FSNE).

That FSNE contest had an ironic twist. Judged by three out-of-state editors, the first two votes came in split, one naming my series first and a Herald series second; the other reversing the order. So the third judge's vote was the tie-breaker. That judge was the managing editor of the Washington Post, Eugene Patterson. Fourteen months later, he would come here as editor and president of the St. Petersburg Times.

Looking back on this exhilarating experience, what pleases me most is that my mother was with me at the FSNE award presentation in Cocoa Beach. My father died without knowing that I even had a journalism career; my mother before I was named business editor. But she was there for the best award of my career, for "the best single piece of work by a Florida newsman in 1970."

Changing roles for female journalists

A Sunday magazine piece I wrote in January 1969 called "The Status of the Sexes" created quite a stir. The magazine's young male editor didn't like the story and probably would have killed it, but Newsfeatures Editor Anne Rowe Goldman, his supervisor, did like it. After it ran, I was in demand to appear on radio talks shows and lead discussion groups.

It was just a freewheeling essay pointing out the obvious. Within almost every field, I said, most women were in the lower-pay, lower-status jobs. I reeled off many examples such as female nurses and male physicians, female bookkeepers and male accountants, female teachers and male professors. Nationally, I cited discrimination in hiring, promotions and pay, jury service, property and inheritance rights. Locally, I noted, women were excluded from St. Petersburg's Commerce Club, essentially a restaurant, and the Pinellas County Committee of 100, an industry-recruiting group.

Some male readers, honestly bewildered, really did ask, "What is it you women want?" Indeed, the proper role of women seemed to confound men who in other ways were liberals.

One was Times chairman Nelson Poynter. He and I were at the head table before a speech he was to make to the Tampa Bay chapter of Women in Communications, his first public appearance after the death of his wife Henrietta in 1968. Knowing how proud he was of her journalistic achievements in the nation's capital and how he had fought racial discrimination, I said I thought it was awful that women weren't admitted to the Washington Press Club.

He disagreed. "I have been fortunate," he said. "I had a very interesting wife, but most men have dull wives."

It was a time of challenge for old notions:

City Editor Bill Brown sent me to cover a meeting at the Commerce Club and the Independent sent business writer Ron Yogman. Both of us were admitted to the meeting, but I was excluded from the luncheon (and informal comments) preceding it. Brown, I'm sure, was opposed in principle to excluding women. But he was a great deal more incensed, I felt, when he saw that such exclusion put his reporter, who happened to be a woman, at a competitive disadvantage.

At a news department meeting during the 1972 presidential campaign, City Hall reporter Virginia Ellis asked managing editor Haiman why no women were being sent on the road to cover the candidates. "We just assumed," he replied, "that the women wouldn't want to leave their families.

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." He stopped, looked around, realized that only one woman was married and only one man wasn't. Soon after, Ellis and Eleanor Randolph were on the campaign trail.

Even our editorial board needed a nudge from its female member in 1969 when C. Bette Wimbish and Barbara Gammon were running for the St. Petersburg City Council. The board liked them both. "But we can't endorse two women," one member said. "Why not?" asked Marion Knauss (later Poynter). The men, she later told me, laughed and said, "Why not?" and promptly endorsed both women.

Overall, the status of women at the Times in the 1960s was symbolized by Goldman and Betty Ann Rhodes.

Goldman was promoted to newsfeatures editor in 1966, before most people had even heard of "affirmative action," becoming the first woman to head a Times department with as many men as women.

The Times was well ahead of public sentiment in 1964, too, when it promoted Rhodes into the strategic newsroom management job of assistant city editor. I suspect she was elevated because her cool head under pressure and lifetime knowledge of St. Petersburg made her an ideal person to take charge in the nighttime hours when all hell is likely to break loose. On the other hand, she was passed over a half-dozen times for promotion to city editor, often the entry position to top management.

Times decisions generally have been good, so I won't second-guess them. I will say that I know of no one, male or female, who worked under Rhodes during those years who did not feel that she deserved the promotion.

My only personal encounter with sexual discrimination in journalism was not at the Times but in 1968 at a summer urban affairs seminar at Northwestern University. Of the seven journalists chosen for the program, I was the only woman. While nice to me socially, two of the men were hostile in the classroom. When I spoke, they snickered and sneered and sometimes even jumped out of their seats shouting, "Bull----." And they excluded me verbally: "I don't know what the other men think, but

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One day over lunch I mentioned this to one of the seminar professors. He said it was my imagination. Later I found it wasn't when one of the other male journalists complimented me "on the way you handled all that abuse."

An opportunity missed

One Saturday in 1966-67 I went to Miami on personal business. I checked into the Key Biscayne Hotel about 2:30 p.m. and later went to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch. At first I thought I was the only patron in the large dining room, then in one corner I noticed another solitary diner whom I recognized instantly.

I could go over and interview him. He'd probably be delighted to get a story in the St. Petersburg Times. Ah, but it's so pleasant sitting here and I'm so hungry and I don't have a notebook and I'm not prepared and who cares about that old has-been anyway.

The solo diner I spurned was Richard Nixon.

Undercover work can be unnerving

Posing by a reporter has been taboo ever since Gene Patterson took control of the newsroom in May 1972. I admired his then-quite-new stance _ that journalists should not get stories under false colors _ and it's a view many newspapers now embrace.

Nevertheless, in 1971 when I did another series entitled "The Hard Sell," being able to go as a customer into a land company closing room offered high adventure for me and lively reading for Times subscribers. Yet I almost blew my cover in the enemy camp!

The man posing as my husband and I had rehearsed details of our false identities before we arrived at the company's on-site sales office. I was carrying a tape recorder in my handbag, a straw one so the sound would come through better. Trouble was this was before the days of long-play tapes. It only recorded for a half-hour, which meant I had to fake an urgent need to go to the restroom where I could turn the tape over or reload. And I couldn't leave it on, but had to sense when the chief closer was about to lie or try to intimidate us, then open my bag for a tissue and surreptitiously switch the recorder on.

I could never be a magician. Instead of hitting "record" I hit "play" and a terrible sqwawk emanated from my handbag. I quickly hit the right key, though, apparently so fast that neither the sales manager nor my "husband" noticed.

Hours of searching finally pay off

Because of Watergate, many people think that investigative reporting mainly consists of finding a Deep Throat. Good sources are important, but the press' main tools are public records. So most of investigative reporting is not glamor and intrigue but tedium and isolation.

Yet, a high point of my career came while inspecting public records. It was like hitting a huge jackpot.

It happened because of a story the Times published on Aug. 18, 1973. It was the most shocking local news I'd ever seen, that the biggest check-kite in U.S. legal history had taken place right here in St. Petersburg. The developers of Bayway Isles-Point Brittany had over a 13-month period written and deposited checks on their accounts in two downtown St. Petersburg banks with such rapidity that a $5.3-million "balance" was generated. It came to light when one bank sued the other for the $5.3-million it was out.

I set about reconstructing the check-kite. In the process I learned that the developers might also have "borrowed" funds some of the condo's all-cash buyers paid to purchase the apartments _ a serious "dishonest dealing" offense. If the Bayway companies had gone bankrupt and the banks had foreclosed, these all-cash buyers could have lost their homes and the entire sales price of their apartments.

So I spent four full days at the Pinellas courthouse in Clearwater, standing on the hard concrete floors, searching through the microfilm records of roughly 700 transactions involving Point Brittany. Late on the fourth day the clerk gave me permission to work on in the evening.

It was my birthday, so I broke for dinner with my mother at the old Circus Buffet on Cleveland Street, then returned for more.

About 11:50 it happened. One after another the proof I'd been looking for appeared on the viewing screen. First the deed for an apartment with no recorded mortgage (indicating an all-cash buyer). Then, in documents dated six months to more than three years later, the releases of the apartments from the overall construction mortgage _ indication that in the interim the money the buyers paid was not turned over to the lender, as the law requires.

By then, I swear, I heard church bells tolling midnight and I was humming, "Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday . . ."

_ Times library researcher Steve Bumgarner assisted with background information for this column.

Next: A newsroom in flux. Medicine/libel suit, frustration, reward.

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