MIAMI (AP) ­- The firing of a Miami Herald columnist who taped a conversation with a man hours before he committed suicide in the newspaper’s lobby has sparked a debate over whether the dismissal was justified.

The newspaper said columnist Jim DeFede recorded his telephone conversation with former city commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr. without permission – a possible violation of state law and the newspaper’s ethical standards.

But DeFede said he should only have been suspended because he told his bosses about the tape on his own and acknowledged his mistake.

Teele killed himself Wednesday after speaking several times by phone with DeFede, a longtime acquaintance who described Teele as “very distraught.” Just hours before, the Miami New Times published a report online entitled “Tales of Teele: Sleaze Stories.”

The weekly newspaper’s story was largely based on police reports and detailed Teele’s alleged contacts with drug dealers, reputed homosexual affairs and the corruption charges he faced.

Whether DeFede broke the law by taping the conversation with Teele is unclear. Florida law requires consent for the recording of telephone conversations, but a state appeals court ruled that did not apply to business calls.

Miami-Dade County prosecutors were reviewing the case, but no charges had been filed against DeFede as of Friday, state attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith said.

Herald executives, though, said the newspaper’s reputation with the public and its sources was at stake.

“The line of behavior for us has to be brightly lit. There can be no ambiguity,” Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler told reporters Thursday.

“It was Jim himself who said he had made the tape knowing full well that what he was doing was a violation of policy,” he said.

Some journalism ethics experts said the newspaper had every right to fire DeFede.

“When you consent to work for an organization, you agree to abide by its policy,” said Kathleen Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

More than 170 journalists from around the country, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Herald columnists Dave Barry and Leonard Pitts Jr. and other colleagues, have signed an online petition urging the paper to rehire DeFede.

Herald Publisher Jesus Diaz wouldn’t say Friday whether the paper would consider rehiring him, but added: “We made the decision based on what Jim said to us and I guess as life moves on, anything is possible.”

AP-ES-07-29-05 1652EDT


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