The reporter who took on the sheriff is a big guy, with glasses softening his round face. He is 39 years old and four years out of college. He has three sons, age 20, 20, and 19. He logged 1 million miles in 13 years as a trucker, and he’s licensed to hit the road again anytime. He’s not likely to. Journalism is working out pretty well.
As The Plain Dealer cops reporter, Mark Puente spends his workdays in a bare room in Cleveland police headquarters. He even talks in the clipped, staccato speech of a cop. He’s also the first to remind you that he’s a beat writer, not a crusader.
“My intent wasn’t to knock the guy out of office,” Puente says of former Cuyahoga County Sheriff Gerald McFaul. “I wanted my name on the front page if I could. And it was a good story.”
Puente wrote 18 articles between January and March 2009: tales of employees handing McFaul cash in envelopes, a 23-year-old tape of the sheriff coaching an ex-girlfriend to avoid a subpoena, campaign contributors making huge salaries as sheriff’s-sale appraisers, deputies selling fundraiser tickets on the job, McFaul showing up for work only one day a week.
On March 25, the day Puente asked the sheriff’s office about the cash from employees, McFaul resigned from the job he’d had since 1977. State investigators raided his office the next day.
The Plain Dealer used to pay scant attention to the sheriff’s office. But when Puente got tips that McFaul had laid off 18 deputies while promoting his niece, his son’s best friend and his VFW hall buddy, he wrote about it. Tips flooded in. By talking with workaday sheriff’s employees, Puente revealed questionable practices that had gone unreported and unchallenged for years.
Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz says Puente got the stories because no one is unimportant to him. “The so-called underlings are the way he got this story, because he got their respect and their trust,” she says.
Puente earned that trust by taking their calls at all hours and meeting people, early and late, at secluded locations. When one source wanted to give him some internal documents, Puente met him behind a K-Mart plaza on Brookpark Road.
Another night, outside a doughnut shop, an ex-girlfriend of McFaul’s stepped into Puente’s car and pressed play on a tape recorder. Out came McFaul’s voice, from 1986, telling her how to avoid being subpoenaed to testify in another ex-girlfriend’s sexual harassment suit against him. (She didn’t testify. A jury found in favor of McFaul.)
Puente’s stories infuriated McFaul. At a January press conference, Puente recalls, “I heard him yell, ‘There’s that f---ing ---hole Puente,’ and he whacks me with a cane.”
McFaul is still angry about Puente’s stories. “He doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” the ex-sheriff says. “He’s very personal, very vindictive, and he’s wrong.” McFaul declined to comment about which articles were inaccurate or unfair, offering only: “I’m saving that for the right time.”
Editor Susan Goldberg talked Puente out of leaving last year to cover cops for The Detroit News. “Mark brings a unique background,” she says. “It helps him come off as everyman.
“Sometimes journalists can seem arrogant, and Mark never does. He has two journalistic tricks: He never talks too much, and he listens.”
Schultz, who won The Plain Dealer’s last Pulitzer Prize, says Puente is the paper’s “No. 1 Pulitzer contender.” More importantly, he’s made an impact in Cleveland, an example of the benefits of a strong press. Puente saw proof of that the first time he walked into the sheriff’s office following McFaul’s resignation.
“I had clerks walking up to me, thanking me, shaking my hand,” he recalls. “I did something they felt should have been done years ago ... but they couldn’t do [it] themselves.”