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May 2014 - McCormick Place

It was a weekend night at the Polish American Club in Eddystone, Pa. A young technical writer for General Electric asked us to hear his standup routine. As a sideline he wrote jokes. He already had one big-name client – Phyllis Diller – five bucks a gag. After his performance we told Gene Perret that we found his material funny, but his delivery needed help. We said we could almost hear Bob Hope doing his lines. Perret said that was his dream – to write for Bob Hope. Just a few years later he was working for Bob Hope and eventually became Hope’s longtime lead writer. Some people are much funnier in print than on the stage.

Dave Barry has no such problem. The Miami Herald columnist is not only the funniest writer going today, but he also has standup skills that match the best. He proved that in early April when he did a book signing to benefit Broward Bulldog, the investigative unit headed by Dan Christensen. A very funny man stood up for a very serious cause. That night, Barry may not have sold many copies of his new book, You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty, because his audience was mostly journalists and they are largely broke these days. But it did not seem to bother him. He stayed onstage for an hour, amusing his listeners with almost every thought. He just doesn’t stand up and tell booger jokes. He actually works, moving around a bit, employing an occasional sight gag.

And aside from selling a few books, he did it all pro bono. This is a man who commands big figures for such appearances. He obviously knew his cause. Dan Christensen is a former Miami Herald reporter, who four years ago saw newspapers cutting their staffs and in the process losing much of their investigative ability. He decided to fill the void and has been supported by a number of prominent ex-newsmen. Financial support comes from contributions, notably by popular crime story writer Michael Connelly, who is a former Sun-Sentinel reporter.

The Bulldog has more than fulfilled its mission. Much of its content is online, but some stories are important enough to be picked up by major papers. Recent example: the report that Gov. Rick Scott’s “blind trust” can see pretty well. Although designed to detach a public figure from his or her investments, it was reported that Scott’s trust is run by a former crony, and that Scott has made millions during his term as governor.

An even more recent example was the news that U.S. District Judge William Zloch of Fort Lauderdale ruled against the FBI’s attempt to throw out a lawsuit filed by Broward Bulldog and others seeking the bureau’s records on a mysterious Saudi figure who left the country in a great hurry shortly before 9/11.

This story reaches far beyond the Broward borders. It was originally broken in 2011 by Christensen and Anthony Summers, an Irish reporter whose work includes a much admired book on the Kennedy assassination. They discovered that the highly connected Saudi man had been visited at his Sarasota area home by some of the 9/11 hijackers. Just before the World Trade Center attack, he and his family left Sarasota in such a rush that they left behind cars and household furnishings. Initially the FBI denied having any pertinent information on the Saudi man, but after Broward Bulldog’s Freedom of Information suit, it produced documents showing the opposite. It revealed numerous contacts between the Saudi and the terrorists. But pages were excised or blacked out.

This greatly disturbed Florida’s former governor and senator Bob Graham, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, who accused the FBI of impeding the commission’s investigation by withholding such important information – information establishing a link between the Saudi Arabian government and the terrorists.

This is investigative reporting at its best, and last month a very funny guy made us laugh to help keep it going.