WBFF reporter tireless about investigations

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Homegrown: After a local station brings him home, Jon Leiberman shows viewers and sources his ability to uncover stories.

May 02, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Forgive Jon Leiberman if he can't keep up to date on local events by watching the nightly news. Since returning to town last summer, he's been working 12 to 14 hours a day, the poor guy, plunging into the mire of the region's criminal justice system.

If you want to see Leiberman in action, however, you will need to turn on your television and flip the remote to WBFF (Channel 45) for the station's 10 p.m. nightly newscast. He's the one with the slightly hoarse voice booming at you about the chaos to be found around town. He's not here, he swears, simply to cover the latest shooting. As the station's investigative reporter for less than a year, Leiberman already is becoming known for executing pieces that peek well beneath the surface.

"Local news has the power to influence communities in major ways, to tell stories that need to be told, to put pressure on public officials that needs to be applied," Leiberman says. "It just takes somebody with drive and passion to uncover these stories and not stop at the first phone call."

Leiberman has plenty of both qualities. He grew up in Westminster - his grandparents live in Pikesville - and knew from an early age that he wanted to be on television.

After Westminster High, Leiberman received a degree in journalism at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago, also the alma mater of his WBFF colleagues Jennifer Gilbert and Deborah Weiner.

A stint at a station in Topeka, Kan., gave way to a job as a one-man bureau for Albuquerque's KOAT in a small mining and college town 250 miles southwest of the New Mexico city.

He churned out stories and soon was tapped to head to Santa Fe, where he covered the state legislature. Dick Knipfing, a fixture in Albuquerque newsrooms who used to be Leiberman's boss at KOAT, describes him as unrelenting.

"He was tireless in his pursuit of truth, justice and the American way," Knipfing says with a laugh. "He was on politicians' backs all the time."

Last summer, WBFF called him home. After the mayoral race in which candidate Martin O'Malley made fighting crime his appeal to voters, station officials decided to create a position devoted to just that subject. Leiberman's reporting generally is presented under the banner of "Crime & Justice."

"The first time we met, he was doing the story about my being hired for this job," says Kevin Enright, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman and brother of Deputy Mayor Michael Enright. Controversy surrounded the hiring, as it was disclosed at about the same time the mayor's brother was given a major contract.

It was, Kevin Enright says, "a tough foot to start off on." But Leiberman approached the story professionally, Enright recalls, saying simply, "The stories are what they are."

WBAL's Jayne Miller is often considered to set the mark for this region's broadcast reporters who pursue hard news. But the longer WBFF newscast gives Leiberman more room to explore nuances in the subjects he covers. Enright says the reporter has won his respect by striking an even-handed tone.

"He's often calling us about stories that aren't flattering to us or about problems he perceives within the department," Enright says. "He doesn't dance around. Sometimes you feel like you're doing that with other reporters."

A two-part series that aired last week provided a look at how repeat offenders skip bail after being charged with a crime, only to be accused of committing new felonies. Leiberman obtained thousands of arrest records from Baltimore's Eastern District and found that 28 percent of those arrested were out on bail in connection with prior offenses.

As well as interviewing crime victims, police, lawyers and public officials, Leiberman spoke with bail bondsmen and bounty hunters. Because the bail bond industry is so competitive here, these sources said, people accused of felonies can walk away from custody after having paid as little as 3 percent of their bail. Under state law, bondsmen are supposed to charge 10 percent in exchange for posting the full bail, but not all do. So someone released on a $100,000 bail would forfeit just $3,000 if he fails to appear for trial - not much of an incentive to show up in court.

Although state law may have been mischaracterized, Leiberman's pieces cast light on a topic of enduring concern. "I pride myself in doing stories that aren't in the newspaper and stories that aren't on other stations," he says. "Maybe you'll see part of the story elsewhere, but there's almost always another level."

Despite his stated emphasis on crime, Leiberman also covers other concerns. A recent piece focused on an insurance company's refusal to pay expensive drug costs for an AIDS patient. Another took the city housing agency to task when it balked at honoring federal vouchers intended to enable public housing residents to find a different home.

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