Retired Times investigative reporter Jerry Seper leaves an impressive legacy

Jerry Seper’s path to journalism was a winding one, and the targets of his reporting — from President Bill Clinton to DC Mayor Marion Barry — probably wished he had stayed on as a cop.

Before becoming the Washington Times’ leading investigative reporter and scourge of Washington’s elite, he served in the US Navy in Vietnam, worked the streets of Los Angeles County as a cop, wrote on grapes and wine for the California wine industry and covered organized events. crime as a journalist in Arizona.

Once in Washington, he took the interrogation tactics of the cop, the reporter’s flair for news and the tenacity of the Navy veteran, harnessed them to a righteous passion and unleashed it on a city ripe for a good scrubbing.

Mr Seper died last week at the age of 79 at his Alabama home, having quietly built up a towering legacy that exceeded his awards and accolades, and was best told in the eulogies of his colleagues .

“Truly the last of the Mohicans. Jerry was one of the best journalists I have ever worked with,” said Charles Hurt, opinion writer at The Times. “He knew everything. But more importantly, he was totally fearless and skeptical about everything. If you did something wrong, you didn’t want to look up and see Jerry Seper snooping around because he always got to the bottom of every story. And he never followed the rest of the pack and never cared what others thought of his reporting.

“Washington is a much more corrupt place today without the Seper reports,” Mr. Hurt said.

Mr. Seper joined the Times several years after its founding in 1982 and gained great credibility for the still fledgling operation.

He followed the biggest personalities in the city and his fingerprints appeared on the main scoops of the newspaper.

It was Mr. Seper who first told the nation that key documents were stolen from the office of Vince Foster, a top aide to Mr. Clinton, after Foster’s shocking suicide. Weeks after that report, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York became the first major Democrat to call in a special prosecutor to investigate Mr. Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. This would become the Ken Starr investigation that ultimately led to the second impeachment and trial of a president.

Mr. Seper was also present when the FBI carried out an undercover operation to catch then-mayor Barry, who was smoking crack cocaine. The agents attempted to disguise Barry as they escorted him out of the Vista International Hotel.

“Mr. Mayor, is that you under that hat?” cried Mr. Seper.

Barry replied, “No, that’s not me.”

“Jerry’s work has left an indelible mark on Washington journalism,” Michael Hedges, Mr. Seper’s longtime colleague, told The Times. “When the DC City Paper named us ‘Washington’s Top Investigative Reporters’ – I was there – her story opened with the line ‘While the Washington Post slept…’ That’s true. Jerry woke the city up to the corruption in Marion Barry’s administration, and in doing so, had a lasting impact on DC’s government.

Mr. Seper and Mr. Hedges also broke news of a male prostitution ring whose connection touched the Reagan and Bush White Houses. This story eventually led to a report that then-lover Rep. Barney Frank, one of the first openly gay members of Congress, had taken clients from Mr. Frank’s home in Washington.

Mr. Seper’s work has won him prestigious awards, including the Barnet Nover Memorial Award for Investigative Journalism, based on his work on Mr. Clinton. He accepted the award at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association where the presenter, by tradition, was the president himself.

“An awkward meeting that way,” Mr. Seper would recall telling Mr. Clinton as they held hands. Mrs. Clinton turned her back on the interaction.

Just before the handshake, the Times photographer who had been assigned to photograph the interaction begged Mr Seper to buy him enough time to make sure he got the photo. Mr. Seper held Mr. Clinton’s hand to make sure the president stayed in place.

Most of those who came into contact with Mr. Seper left with stories.

Colleagues in the press room heard a “thwack-thwack-thwack” coming from his booth and looked up to see him banging his telephone handset on his desk – with one caller still on the line.

Once it was a civil servant who refused to divulge something Mr Seper thought the public had a right to know.

“This information belongs to me. You work for me,” he thundered at the official.

Another time it was a reader who had called to rebuke a detail of a story that Mr. Seper was quite sure he understood.

Once Mr. Seper had finished pressing the handset for attention, he gave the knockout blow to the hapless caller: “Sir, somewhere a village is missing its idiot.”

Like many big names in editorial, Mr. Seper believed experience was more important training than a degree in journalism.

During the Vietnam War, he was assigned to patrol boats that patrolled the Mekong Delta to interdict Viet Cong smuggling, rescue downed pilots, or insert US special forces into contested territory.

After the Navy, he spent time as a cop in a town in Los Angeles County, eventually deciding that police work was not for him. But some of those investigative tactics stayed with him as he joined the ranks of the press, working in Tucson, Arizona, Fresno, California, and then back to Arizona, where he landed at the major Phoenix daily, The Republic.

Mr. Seper joined the paper to replace Don Bolles, an investigative reporter who was murdered outside a Phoenix hotel in 1976 while investigating mob activity and government corruption.

It was also in Phoenix that he met his second wife, Myrna, who was a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office. He set up an all-court press to get her attention, launching a partnership that lasted until his death in 2016.

When Mr. Seper sought to join the Times in the 1980s, an editor asked him why he wanted to come to Washington. He said he was ready to face the heavy artillery of the national media.

As news of Mr Seper’s death last week spread among his colleagues, the stories began to circulate online.

“One day he offered to slash the tires of someone who had wronged me. I think he meant it,” wrote Audrey Hudson, a former Times reporter.

John Leach, a colleague of Mr. Seper’s time in Arizona, wrote: “He once told me that a personality test said he had to be either a journalist or a high school coach. It was perfect. He used to take a break from a stressful day at work by writing football plays on the I-team whiteboard.

GiAnn Seper, his daughter, said neighborhood kids would come to their house and knock on the door and ask if “Coach Seper” could come and play with them.

GiAnn, one of three children with Michael and Jerry Jr., recalled how their father wore a Pop Warner football jersey under his work clothes, and came home and unbuttoned the work shirt. It was the signal that star reporter Clark Kent had become a dad.

“When we were little, we thought our father was really a superman,” she said. “I just feel like I lost my hero.”

Mr. Seper himself played football and baseball in high school and even spoke to the Dodgers who, as he said, said his glove was pretty good but his bat was a bit too laggy for be one of the pros.

He reveled in a football story in which he brought down eventual Heisman Trophy winner, running back Mike Garrett, in what a local newspaper called a “minimal” tackle. In fact, Mr. Seper admitted, he was completely beaten and had taken a dive in despair. He never lifted a finger at the running back, who tripped over his own feet.

In his later years, Mr. Seper was a dedicated fisherman, planning vacations and even making his retirement plans in Alabama with an eye for the best fishing.

“My fishing buddy is gone,” said Jerry Jr.

At the Times, Mr. Seper’s office was tucked away in the back, about as far from the editors as possible. It was no coincidence. He viewed publishers as enemies.

After a shouting match with an editor, Mr Seper stormed out of his office, slamming the man’s door so hard it jammed. As a maintenance worker was called to open it, the editor could be seen through the glass lurking inside the room, shouting unheard curses at Mr Seper.

For years, Mr. Seper happily re-enacted the scene for young journalists.

Another time, Mr. Seper, a physically imposing man, slammed the door of an editor so hard that the button punched a hole in the wall, recalled Ken Hanner, a longtime editor.

“I appreciated his hard work which resulted in many great exclusive stories over the years,” Mr. Hanner said. “I also had to put up with his anger when one of his stories got cut or didn’t make it to the front page. But to me, his temper showed how much he cared about doing his job and getting a good story.

Mr. Hanner recalled that Mr. Seper was always sprucing up his résumé, just in case the newspaper’s management pushed him over the edge one too many times.

The journalists who met Mr. Seper always had a story that stuck with them.

Sometimes it was a tip or a reporting technique. He kept a huge file of sources and contacts, and made sure to write down any personal information that came up during a conversation. Sources would melt when Mr Seper asked how their daughter fared at the football tournament.

He could also use more convincing tactics, honed from his days as a cop. If he wanted to shake a source he met in person, he would use his considerable frame to invade their space, knocking them over and spilling the beans on something they never intended to share.

Mr Hedges said when they were working on a big story they would be the last to leave the newsroom.

And sometimes, after editors had finalized a story, Mr. Hedges recalled that he and Mr. Seper would return to the collage room where the typesetters would lay out the pages by hand. Mr. Seper was asking for a quick edit before the story went to the printers, correcting one last word or inserting a key detail he felt readers needed to know.

“We never went home if there was a chance to improve a story,” Mr. Hedges said.

He said that was the secret to Mr. Seper’s success: “It’s not smoke and mirrors and tricks, it’s about outdoing others.”

• Washington Times staff can be reached at 202-636-3000.


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