There were a lot of laughs when veteran local investigative TV reporter Mike Deeson took to the dais at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club meeting at Jackson Bistro on Harbor Island on Friday, but also a few bits of news.
On former and probable future House District 64 Republican Jamie Grant, Deeson said that though no criminal charges were called for in a recent Hardee County grand jury report on Grant’s acceptance of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds for a medical startup company, federal and statewide prosecutors are “looking at what the grand jury found.”
On his reports about malfeasance at PSTA, the Pinellas County transit agency, he says board members have told him that CEO Brad Miller needs to be replaced.
And his favorite soundbite in his 40-year career? Former Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner telling him, “I don’t recall sending her a picture of my penis.”
Unquestionably the dean of Tampa Bay investigative television reporters, Deeson began his broadcast journalism career in radio in 1966, moved to TV in 1968, and came to WTSP-Channel 10 in St. Petersburg in 1982, where he’s been ensconced ever since. A Chicago native, he’s won 10 Emmy awards and been nominated 30 times.
But like any decent reporter, Deeson knows that it’s never been about him — whatever fame he’s acquired along the way came from putting his head down and working extremely hard.
“There’s no substitute for hard work, no matter what you do,” he said at one point during his speech and Q&A session on Friday.”I put in a lot of hours, but I love it. I have a job I love, but the reason I have the power of a TV station behind me. And I never forget that.”
Like the late Mike Wallace during his glory days at 60 Minutes, one of Deeson’s trademarks has been capturing the object of his attention in a live camera shot, resulting in that newsmaker frequently running away from him.
He said that two years ago he waited outside a bar in downtown St. Petersburg for four hours on a Friday night right before the legislative session was about to begin to confront Grant about allegations that a company of his received over $2.5 million in seed money from the Hardee County Industrial Development Authority, with the county receiving little to show for it. But he said that Grant left through a back door.
“Jamie didn’t want to talk to me,” Deeson said to guffaws from the crowd who gathered at the Harbor Island restaurant. “But for those who don’t know me, I always get my man.” He ultimately was able to track him down in Tallahassee. “He said I was crazy, I was making things up. Well, two weeks ago the grand jury report came out, and it confirmed everything I said — and worse.”
Two weekends ago, a Hardee County grand jury slammed Jamie Grant and other public officials for taking $2.7 million for a medical startup company that it says promised enormous returns and failed to deliver. Grant did not return our request for comment when Florida Politics wrote about the grand jury report, but did write to the Tampa Bay Times in an email that “The success of this project has been blatantly misrepresented.”
Nevertheless, Deeson said today that “There is a great deal of satisfaction when something like that happens,” and added almost as an aside that “I am told that the Justice Department and the statewide prosecutor for political corruption — Nick Cox — is looking at what the grand jury has found.” When a Tiger Bay audience member asked if he was frustrated that it appears that because he has no opposition that Grant will return to the Legislature in a special election next month, Deeson retorted that “All I can do is say, folks, here’s what he did. It’s troubling.”
Last year after conservative blogger David McKalip first noted it, Deeson reported on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority having spent $354,000 of Dept. of Homeland Security funds for their Greenlight Pinellas campaign. PSTA board members denounced Deeson at a board meeting after his initial report, but they weren’t saying much after DHS came back and demanded that PSTA CEO Brad Miller return the funds to Washington. For the transit agency it was an embarrassing moment, and one that didn’t help their cause to get citizens behind a one-cent transit tax that ultimately failed miserably at the polls.
Most recently Deeson reported on the lack of many passengers on PSTA buses (interestingly a complaint made by the No Tax for Tracks group last year). When asked by Democratic political consultant Gregory Wilson if that was “piling on” the beleaguered agency, the veteran reporter said no, not really.
“He screwed up in my estimation,” he said regarding Miller. “And quite honestly, people within the agency I have talked to, even those on the board — I never reveal sources — have said that to me. I was talking to someone two weeks ago and I said to him, I know you’re mad at me. And this person stopped and said. ‘No, I’m not mad at you. You are going to make change in this agency. Because we need to make change. You pointed out problems to us.’ So I don’t feel I was piling on. …Now after the most recent story on them I got a call from an angry person on the board who said to me, ‘You know what you did on that story?’ He said you just brought the executive director another six months because they don’t want to fire him because of his stories. But people have told me there needs to be change there. I think the agency has serious problems, and I think that it’s our responsibility to point them out, when they surface. I don’t think it’s piling on.”
Neeson said he feels that virtually every politician across the board starts out with good intentions, doing what they truly feel is right for their community. “There are very few who start out trying to lie, cheat or steal. But somehow…it’s power, it’s money, it’s sex. And sometimes a combination of all three.”
He said that 99 percent of his stories come from tips from the public. He spends hours a day on the phone, and also gets plenty of emails. “It cuts across party lines,” he says of those who feed him story ideas. “People get fed up with corruption.”
Regarding the media landscape today, he said cuts at local papers like the Times and Tampa Tribune have been “devastating,” but says one positive recent development is that WTSP’s parent company, Gannett, has done research showing that investigative reporting offers unique local content that drives people to watch a local newscast. So instead of cutting his department, Channel 10 has beefed up their investigative reporting department budget (as has WFTS ABC 28, he says). “So there is hope there.”
Deeson also offered the fact that he’s currently working on a memoir of his years in the business, to be called Bad News for You is Good News for Me. He says that in compiling anecdotes for the book, he believes the single best sound bite he ever received in over 40 years in the industry came back in 2012 from former Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner, after Turner was accused by an underling whom he fired that the two had carried on a sexual affair.
The line was, “I don’t recall sending her a picture of my penis.”
“I had expected him to say, ‘Mike, that’s crazy.'”
But he didn’t.