This Sunday, Mark Puente's byline appeared in the Plain Dealer for the last time. Prosecutor Bill Mason, who found Puente on his front porch more times than he liked this year, is probably shaking off the fear of his own ringing doorbell. Ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul, still under house arrest for crimes Puente uncovered, may feel cursed anew to know his nemesis is free to enjoy southern sunshine.
Puente, the PD's best reporter of the past three years, left earlier this month to write about Florida real estate for the prestigious St. Petersburg Times. It's a shock to readers who appreciated his relentless exposés of Cleveland politicians, but no surprise to those close to him.
"Everybody knew my goal was to live close to the water, where it’s warm," says Puente, who went to college in North Carolina. "The editors, everybody, knew that." Now, he says, "I can walk out of the newsroom at lunchtime and be by the bay in less than five minutes. I can watch sailboats come in, watch pelicans dive for fish. It’s 80 degrees."
Puente's 2½-year winning streak in Cleveland began the day an enraged Jimmy Dimora threw him and fellow reporter Henry Gomez out of a meeting. It ran all the way to this Sunday's latest cash-and-favors exposé of Frank Russo's office, co-reported with Gabriel Baird and Gomez. In between, Puente's relentless investigative reporting brought down the once-impregnable McFaul and had co-workers at the paper talking Pulitzer.
Even the PD's toughest critics respect Puente's work. Consider this line, from Ted Diadiun's Sunday piece on why the paper didn't aggressively investigate county corruption and patronage before 2008: "Some people I talked with think that if a reporter like Puente had been on the beat, the paper would have broken the story earlier," Diadiun wrote.
So Puente's Nov. 4 departure, along with editor Susan Goldberg's the same week, leaves local watchdog-journalism lovers nervous about whether the Plain Dealer will keep it up.
Puente, graciously, says he'll be rooting for his former colleagues to go after the town's slipperier politicians. New editor Debra Adams Simmons calls watchdogging her top priority, he notes. As for the line in Diaduin's story, Puente told Diaduin that reporters can't investigate without sources, and he didn't have them in the sheriff's office until McFaul laid people off.
Cultivating sources was the secret to Puente's work in the Justice Center. The story of his goodbye to the police beat, told in two Facebook posts, could give aspiring young reporters an advanced lesson in how the best beat reporters do their work.
In one last-day post, Puente wrote that he deleted 463 phone numbers from his company cell phone. In another, he wrote: “Headed to the Justice Center to say goodbye to some good people: the hot dog vendors and a few cashiers. These folks know everything; they hear everything. I was proud they trusted me and had me on speed dial.”
"The people with the most meager, lowest paying jobs, they’re willing to talk," Puente says. "They want to talk. They just need to be approached and build that trust up. Talking to the janitors, the clerical people who come up and say hi -- once they found someone willing to listen to them, they came flocking to me."
To read my June 2009 story on how Puente's reporting took McFaul down, click here.