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NOT WITH A BANG, BUT A WHIMPER

On the morning after the indictments came out, Representative Jim Meredith came to his state capitol office at his usual time.

He wore his newest three-piece suit and a cautious smile. He was determined to brazen it out. I was surprised to hear that Meredith had actually stopped briefly when a reporter greeted him as he strolled through the mall on the way to his office.

"I came in to work today," Meredith said, "precisely because I'm innocent. I welcome the investigation. It will give me a chance to clear my name."

Meredith felt he had nothing to fear. He was a politician on his way up. His ambition was to become speaker of the House, and the goal was attainable.

Meredith had joined the Rotary Club, Lions Club, Masons, Shriners, and even Elks. There was no social group he wasn't eager to join if it would help his political career.

He was a friend of the powerful insurance lobby. Meredith gave the appearance of being "squeaky clean." During his last election, he had handed out cards to voters which promised:

"Work to be done: Support the betterment of our laws in fighting crime."

On this very day, there would be a group of students in the gallery of the House who had come to the capitol as Meredith's guests.

They were there to see their representative in action. This was also the day when the annual picnic lunch for high school students was to be held in Wesley Bolin Plaza.

For Meredith and other legislators, it was a chance to meet and eat with young people who represented votes for the future.

Upon entering his office, Meredith instructed his secretary to hold all his telephone calls. He wanted the line free. There were important calls Meredith wanted to make himself.

After listening to the news on the radio while on his way to the capitol, Meredith began to feel uneasy. He realized this story of legislative payoffs was going to be much more serious than he had first thought.

Even as Meredith sat behind his desk talking with close friends, he noticed the crowd of reporters was gathering outside his office.

Even the television camera operators were showing up. A camera operator from Channel 5 had the impudence to poke his camera through the door and take pictures of Meredith as he talked on the telephone. Realizing how this might look on the evening news, Meredith rushed forward and closed the door. You could hear the click as he locked it.

I had no real expectation that Meredith was ever going to invite any of us into his office. Some politicians can sense when the tide has turned and it is of no use to talk to the press anymore.

But I sat there patiently with all the rest. "Does he know we're waiting?" asked Bill Gruver, a radio reporter with much experience and the benefit of a Columbia University journalism degree.

"Yes, he certainly does," Meredith's secretary said. She seemed uncertain as to how she should act toward the reporters. Always in the past, reporters were treated with elaborate courtesy because the friendly articles they were doing helped Meredith's political career.

Suddenly, the press had become the enemy. And it all happened so quickly that the new strategy had not been brought into play as yet.

As I sat there, I kept thinking about what was said about Meredith's activities in the indictment.

On October 4, 1990, Meredith had gone to the office of the police informant. He had been told about the man who wanted to get a gambling bill passed by Representative Don Kenney.

The man offered Meredith his help in seeing to it that he could retain his job as majority leader.

Meredith told him which Republicans needed financial help to get re-elected. Meredith said that he was willing to help these people because he knew they would vote for him.

Meredith also advised the man that it would be smart if he bought some tickets to the Fife Symington dinner that was coming up.

At this point, according to the indictment, Meredith accepted $2,200 in cash for tickets. Meredith was so overjoyed to receive the money that he told the police informant they would sit together at the banquet.

Meredith, according to the indictment, then told the man just what amounts to donate to Meredith's friends in the legislature.

The total figure came to $7,040 for the contributions. The police informant handed Meredith some money, which Meredith accepted. Meredith carefully counted it before putting it away.

In the pile, there was $60 more than Meredith had requested, but he made no effort to give back the change.

"I'll just put the extra $60 into my campaign," Meredith said. I kept thinking of Meredith's part in the indictment as the minutes ticked away outside his office. The door was still closed. Reporters began making jokes about how we were all being stiffed by Meredith. His secretary thought it was funny, too.

It was at this point that Meredith called for his secretary. He came to the door and unlocked it so she could enter.

When she came out of the office, she failed to lock it.
I knew this was going to be my only chance. I jumped up from my chair and moved quickly to the door. I opened it and walked through.

Meredith was back on the telephone. He was staring at a side wall. He was startled when I moved to the front of his desk.

"Who are you?" he asked. His eyes were wide with panic. It was as though he thought I was some terrorist come to assassinate him.

"We've been waiting out there too long," I said. "We all have deadlines. We want to know what you have to say about this indictment."

"Get out," Meredith said. "Get out and please close that door."
I then did something that wasn't polite. I turned around and grabbed the door and slammed it shut. But I remained inside with Meredith.

"What do you think you're doing?" Meredith said. "I don't even know you. Who the hell are you, anyway?"

What could I tell him? Should I say I was some mythical character come to get back the money he'd taken in the police sting?

I was just as much at a loss as Meredith was.
"All we want to know is whether you are going to face us and deny your guilt or remain hiding in here for the rest of the day."

Meredith was apoplectic by now. I'm sure if he hadn't been named in that indictment he would have been calling then for police to arrest me.

He took a deep breath and finally forced himself to speak.
"You are being rude," he said. He gave the "rude" a big accent, using it almost as a weapon.

I stared down into Meredith's eyes. He was a frightened man.
I could see he felt cornered. There was no way he was ever going to get out of his chair and stand up.

There was nothing more to say. We understood each other.
I remembered the observation an old city editor told me once when I was just starting out in the business.

"Kid," he said, "the only way for a newspaperman to look at a politician is down."

In the pile, there was $60 more than Meredith had requested, but he made no effort to give back the change.

"All we want to know is whether you are going to face us and deny your guilt or remain hiding in here for the rest of the day?

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Tom Fitzpatrick