Silly me! Here I am thinking it was a legit story: A masseuse gets arrested for allegedly rubbing a customer the wrong way at an Albany massage parlor owned by the wife of the investigations editor of the Times Union, the largest newspaper in the region.
But Rex Smith, the top editor at the TU, told me that, even though his newspaper knew about the arrest back on March 15 when it happened, they decided not to go with the story because the charge is only a misdemeanor, for prostitution, and the accused was not even jailed. “Charges at that level are filed against dozens of people in the Capital Region daily,” Smith wrote in a column, “so routinely that we don’t consider them newsworthy.”
That explanation resembles nothing more than Swiss cheese. The arrest of 53-year-old Mia Liu obviously is rescued from routine-ville by its connections with J. Robert Port, who, as the newspaper’s investigations editor, is a fairly powerful employee of a very powerful institution. Port. I am told, is credited with helping to guide the TU’s coverage of John Sweeney’s boozy behavior, bringing down the Republican congressman in the process. Also the paper’s raising of serious questions about the drug unit of the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, leading to the unit’s demise. Port describes his job on Facebook as “punishing the wicked by exposing their evil secrets.”
Plus, if Port’s involvement with his wife’s spa was at “arm’s length,” then he has short arms. When arrested, Mia Liu gave the home address of J. Robert Port and his wife, Bin Cheng, as her home address. Rex Smith told me she was “staying” there, helping Port’s wife to establish the Green Garden Asian Spa on North Pearl Street, right in the heart of Mayor Jennings’ theater-bar-restaurant district. And The New York Times reports that it was both Port and his wife who paid $100-a-week cash rent for the spa’s former location in Latham.
Yeah, it was a misdemeanor, but then you have to give it the “what if it were” test. What if it were a member of the governor’s staff, or the news director of a local TV station? With all the same or similar circumstances, would the arrest have been reported? You fill in the answer.
Rex Smith told me that, from the time of the arrest, the TU was working on a “broader” story but the newspaper was forced to prematurely go with its story last week because The New York Times was about to publish an account. Cannot remember the last time a newspaper held off on reporting the initial arrest because there was a “broader” story out there.
Now, if you’ve heard anything about this affair, you know there is a back-story and a pretty sensational one at that. J. Robert Port told the Times that the raid on his wife’s establishment and the arrest of the masseuse were retaliation against him and the TU for the newspaper’s many stories about the Albany police and the sheriff’s drug unit. He offered no evidence, certainly no evidence of the type he would demand before publishing such claims in his own newspaper. Port said he believed Mayor Jerry Jennings was a part of this conspiracy against him and against the First Amendment, but his boss, Rex Smith, said the newspaper was “not prepared” at this point to back the editor in these conspiracy assertions. Police Chief Steve Krokoff said his people do not make arrests based on “retaliation,” but the chief does concede that this kind of sting (Port proclaims the woman’s innocence) is not normal procedure for his department. The investigation, he said, was “inherited” from the county but he stands by the integrity of the arrest.
But, after all that conspiracy stuff, we are still left with the uneasy fact that the TU did not report the arrest until forced to do so by another publication, aren’t we?
Jeff Jamison, the compliance attorney for the city’s buildings department, already has his answer for the what-if-it-were question: “Do you really think the newspaper would have looked the other way if this involved someone who worked for some other business not as big and powerful as the TU? C’mon, be serious.” Jamison had joined cops on the sting and wrote up the spa for not having necessary permits. He says he had no knowledge beforehand of Port’s connection with the business.
Look, Rex Smith is no dumb bunny and I am betting that right about now he wishes that the Times Union had published — even on page B6 — a bare-bones, three-paragraph account of the arrest and the ownership of the spa right after it all came down. Hindsight is beautiful, ain’t it?