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While the media was obsessed with Chandra Levy, another congressional staffer was found dead in then-representative and current MSNBC talk-show host Joe Scarborough's office. Unlike Gary Condit, Scarborough got a free ride from the press.
In the morning of July 20, 2001, the body of Lori Klausutis, who had worked as an aide to Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough for approximately two years, was found in Scarborough's Fort Walton Beach, Florida, office.
There were no witnesses to Klausutis's death.
According to Anna Dobbins, a producer at WEAR-TV, Joe was on the phone with the local ABC affiliate in Pensacola within three hours of the discovery of the body, and before the family was notified, to say that "a young woman had died in his office and that she had a complicated medical history, specifically surrounding 'stroke and epilepsy.'"
The congressman and his advisor, Mick Serrano, made similar calls to two other local media outlets within hours of the body's discovery.
According to Dobbins and others, about a week later, after the Klausutis family wrote an excoriating letter to a local paper, Serrano called back to ask that they stop reporting the "complicated health history."
Joe, they were now correctly told, had spoken in error.
Klausutis-a marathon runner, 28 years old and happily married-had been in great shape. Her "complicated health" began only on the night that she died, and its "history" surfaced primarily because of Joe's misinformation.
The nebulous circumstances surrounding Klausutis's death were further compounded during her body's postmortem exam. Michael Berkland, the medical examiner assigned to perform the autopsy, quickly released a statement to the press indicating that there were no signs of trauma to the body or any indication of foul play. Later, however, he admitted the body had "a scratch and a bruise."
Berkland, it must be noted, has a less than professional record. He was fired from his position as medical examiner in Missouri for making false statements and eventually lost the right to practice medicine in that state (see sidebar). Still, Berkland concluded in the final autopsy report that Klausutis's heart had failed. Moreover, by failing to officially close the investigation, long after they had ceased to interview witnesses, the police prevented the public from learning any facts about Klausutis's death.
Only when the autopsy report was released (and that occurred only because the editor in chief of the Northwest Florida Daily News Ralph Routon's editorial demanded its issuance) did those willing to exercise their rights under Florida's Sunshine Law learn the extent of Lori's injuries.
The autopsy report revealed that Lori had suffered two skull fractures and an additional wound. A 71/4-inch crack all but spanned the top of her head, from right temple to left.
As a likely consequence of that blow, blood poured in from a steadily pumping heart to form a fist-sized hematoma at the left temple. There were separate 11/2-inch eggshell fractures, essentially pulverizing the bone, deep inside the skull behind the right ear. The back of her head was bashed, and her lungs were filled with bloody foam, suggesting that she took a relatively long time to die.
In the final autopsy report, Berkland wrote off all those devastating injuries to heart failure. According to Berkland, Klausutis had fainted from a weak heart and hit her head on the desk, an unlikely scenario considering the massive damage to the victim's skull.
Showing an incredible lack of professionalism, the local press swallowed this story whole, even the seeming contradiction about a failing heart having been capable of pumping more than a half cup of blood to form the hematoma. Medical science suggests that, if Klausutis's heart was so weak that it failed to pump enough blood to her brain to maintain consciousness, that same heart would not pump enough blood to form the hematoma.
With Berkland's confusing-and medically improbable-scenario securely within the official case file, the case was closed. No more questions. No more answers.
Democratic Congressman Gary Condit wasn't so lucky. Chandra Levy was last seen April 30, 2001, less than three months before Klausutis's death. Thousands of stories appeared all over the world about Condit's missing intern. When facts were in short supply, the media unashamedly engaged in rampant speculation. For instance, constantly searching for a new angle to the story, Fox News even interviewed a psychic to learn what happened to Levy.
Condit became the most sought-after interview subject since Monica Lewinsky. Connie Chung beat out Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather and others for the much-coveted "get," and on August 23, 2001, a little more than a month after Klausutis's death, ABC's Prime Time Live aired the highly anticipated interview/event.
Levy and Klausutis were both young females who worked for U.S. representatives. Scarborough's aide, while never missing, also died under mysterious circumstances. Both stories broke-or would have broken-within three months of each other and before the events of 9/11 finally forced the media to get over the Condit story (at least temporarily).
Given these similarities, how was it that the media never even questioned why Scarborough was not a suspect in Klausutis's death?
The mainstream press, by our count, published only a few dozen stories about the case of the dead staffer, almost all of which appeared in outlets in the northwest Florida area. Cable news completely ignored the story. The alternative press, too, has been all but silent on the Klausutis situation.
The "liberal media" that spent the greater part of summer 2001 destroying the career and reputation of former Congressman Gary Condit (D-California) over his affair with his then-missing intern Chandra Levy had absolutely nothing to say about the young woman who worked for Scarborough and died in his office.
While so-called journalists chased down every rumor about Condit, they would simply hang up on or dismiss any caller who dared to mention the death in Joe's office.
Furthermore, instead of receiving the Condit treatment-nonstop Larry King specials with titles such as "Death in a Congressman's Office"-Joe was offered his own television show.
Unexpectedly, Scarborough announced his retirement from representing Florida's First Congressional District in May 2001-just six months after his reelection-and signed a three-year contract with cable news channel MSNBC to host Scarborough Country, replacing their then-highest-rated prime-time show, Donahue. Not only did he escape media scrutiny altogether, but he was also given a slot in their ranks.
Scarborough has since made a name for himself for his thoroughly brutal attacks on anyone who disagrees with him or George W. Bush. Danny Glover, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garofalo have all been the targets of Joe's ire.
According to The New Yorker's TV reviewer Nancy Franklin, Scarborough "swings his little club with about as much discrimination as Bamm-Bamm, the diaper-clad pugilist on The Flintstones." But "Regular Joe"-as he likes to be called-has an uncommonly thin skin. Scarborough has frequently complained about his tarnished reputation and lambastes anyone who questions the disparity of coverage received by the Condit and Scarborough cases.
"It's not really the media so much as it is sort of this political class of people who just go around causing trouble all the time," Joe said in an interview published in the Pensacola News Journal in September 2001, just days before he left office. "For instance, it is spread all over the Internet right now that my staff member [Lori Klausutis], who died tragically a month ago, was killed by me. I could list a thousand conspiracy theories against me: that I rig elections; that I have a drug-running outfit with the CIA; that I'm a murderer; that I have 15 illegitimate children."
In reality, there's been scant coverage of even the most fundamental aspects of the Klausutis case.
One is left to wonder why our media was so quick to jump on every single tid-bit of gossip and innuendo about Gary Condit but refused to report of Lori Klausutis's death, on the equally intriguing and tragic story. Surely if Gary Condit had called the media to issue false statements about Chandra Levy's nonexistent health problems, the public would have heard about it nonstop. In Joe's case, the revelation was never mentioned.
Regardless, Regular Joe is now a regular TV star, living the high life in New York a thousand miles away from memories of a dead staffer.
Joe himself wrote the following in one of the many self-serving columns for the Independent Florida Sun, his now-defunct newspaper: "There is an old saying that warns that if you allow people to assume the worst, they will. So be it."
Indeed. On May 29, 2003, Scarborough appeared on Don Imus's radio show. While complimenting Scarborough on his sense of humor, Imus said, "Don't be afraid to be funny, because you are funny. I asked you why you aren't in Congress. You said that you had sex with the intern, and then you had to kill her." Scarborough laughed and replied, "Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?"
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Denis Wright is an artist, writer and activist whose work has appeared in Online Journal and American Politics Journal. He is currently researching irregularities and political fraud surrounding touch-screen voting technology. Chris George and R.S. Miller contributed to this report.