The reporter and the prosecutor

The Al-Arian story takes a controversial romantic turn

Michael Fechter, whose reporting led to the decade-long federal investigation of Sami Al-Arian, and Cherie Krigsman, one of the case's federal prosecutors, are an item.

Fechter confirmed to Creative Loafing this week that he and Krigsman have been romantically involved since shortly after the end of Al-Arian's trial 11 months ago. He said the relationship did not color his reporting on the case because he begged off writing any further Al-Arian stories once he and Krigsman became romantically involved.

Fechter's newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, has long been accused of bias in the Al-Arian case. The fact that Fechter is dating one of Al-Arian's three lead federal prosecutors is sure to raise at least a few eyebrows among critics.

The Fechter-Krigsman relationship could also revive legal acrimony about a case that is still being fought out in federal court even this week, months after Al-Arian pleaded to a single count of conspiracy. When told of the relationship by CL, Al-Arian attorney Linda Moreno said, "I'm shocked and stunned. We'll have to see what comes out about this and what impact it might have on [Al-Arian's] case."

Fechter, when asked about his relationship with a federal prosecutor, initially said, "I'm not sure that is anybody's business." But when asked how people might perceive rumors that he dated Krigsman during the trial, Fechter asserted, "It was not going on during trial. ... Subsequent to the trial ending, we got together. Cherie had accepted a job here previously, so she came back in late June or July and yeah, we've been seeing each other since then."

Fechter did confirm that he had received a gift from Krigsman — a shirt from a U.S. embassy — prior to the start of the trial. He said Krigsman was thanking him for recommending a synagogue and that he gave the shirt away.

Fechter was married for 17 years and has two teenage children before being divorced in August. His ex-wife, Jackie Fechter, declined to comment other than to say that she first found about the Krigsman relationship "very, very recently," long after the reporter had informed his editors of the affair this spring.

Krigsman, who was in the military for 23 years before joining the Justice Department, was previously based in Washington, D.C., where one source who asked not to be named said she had been offered a top counter-terrorism post. Instead, she opted to return to Tampa, where she was temporarily assigned since 2004 for the Al-Arian case. She bought a house in a north Tampa neighborhood in June.

Krigsman's office referred questions about the relationship to Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Tampa, who promised a statement on the matter on Monday but did not produce one.

While it remains unclear if Krigsman's bosses knew (or approved) of her relationship, Fechter told his editors in the spring that he could no longer write about the Al-Arian case because of his closeness to Krigsman. Since the end of the trial in Dec. 2005 and the disbanding of an investigative unit that he worked in, Fechter has reported on politics and Florida's 2006 elections.

Tampa Tribune Executive Editor Janet Weaver said Fechter's disclosure came just before Al-Arian's plea bargain in mid-April and shows good faith on the reporter's part to be open about the relationship: "Mike's work [on the Al-Arian story] long preceded any involvement in the courts; his background on it long precedes his being acquainted with her [Krigsman]."

But Weaver acknowledged that the development would be fodder for critics of the newspaper's strident Al-Arian investigative coverage. "I'm not naive," Weaver said. "People who look for agendas and bias will seize onto this. I feel comfortable that when [Fechter] saw this was moving onto a different direction, he said something."

Fechter's role in the Al-Arian story has long been controversial. The Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Salon.com and Creative Loafing wrote critical accounts, taking the Trib and Fechter to task for what they said were highly biased accounts and an anti-Arab tilt. The plea agreement came after a jury failed to find Al-Arian guilty on most counts and deadlocked on others. He did not plead to any violent activities, but the agreement made it clear he did lie to local journalists and civic leaders about his involvement in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The stories in which Fechter mentions Krigsman do not reveal any favoritism toward her. She did figure prominently in his account of a physical altercation she had with Al-Arian defense lawyer William Moffitt in which Moffitt lost his temper and bumped her during a court recess.

Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, said, "Sleeping with sources is not a good idea." But she added that it's not unusual for relationships to develop. McBride also said that if the Tribune had determined Fechter's relationship with Krigsman commenced after he ceased reporting on Al-Arian, the newspaper had no obligation to report the story.

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