Congressman Michael Grimm’s threat of violence against NY1 reporter Michael Scotto after last night’s State of the Union is not an isolated incident.
I know because he’s gotten in my face, too. And those of much more veteran reporters than Scotto or me.
Earlier this morning NY1′s News Director Bob Hardt published a statement online demanding a response from House leadership about Grimm’s behavior. In it, he described another exchange in 2012 with Grimm that wasn’t caught on camera:
Following an interview with NY1’s Errol Louis in December of 2012, the congressman blew his top – off-camera. Again, at issue was the fact that Louis had the temerity to ask Grimm about an investigation that recently led to an associate of the congressman being arrested and charged with illegally donating $10,000 to his campaign.
After the interview, Grimm became red-faced and started yelling at both Louis and me, alluding to settling the issue by “taking it outside” with our political anchor – acting as if he were in a bar instead of a TV studio. He’s also complained to me when our reporters on Staten Island asked him about the probe when he was running for re-election in 2012.
I already knew this story. Shortly after that incident, Louis, a veteran and highly regarded member of New York City’s political press corps, was leading a workshop at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. I was in attendance when Louis began describing the incident – but left out the congressman’s name.
After the workshop, I went up to Louis.
“It was Grimm, wasn’t it?” I asked.
I knew it because the events matched up almost exactly to an encounter I had with Grimm on April 30, 2012 – the first and last time I spoke directly to the congressman.
I met Grimm during a meeting that evening of the Bensonhurst West End Community Council. I introduced myself before the meeting began. He mentioned to me that we ran an article that day about the investigation into his fundraising that he felt was outdated, and so misrepresented the facts.
After reviewing the post from my phone during the meeting, I didn’t feel there was anything that misrepresented the facts, although I did concede to his argument that our version didn’t make clear that most of the information came from reports that were a few weeks old (and later that night added a clarification, because it was the right thing to do).
I approached Grimm as he was leaving the room, and began with an apology, to get on good footing, and planned to ask him if the situation had changed – basically, if there was an actual update to the story, if he had a response, or if he was just bellyaching that we were writing it up at all.
We stepped out of the Harway Terrace Community Room and into the empty hallway. Just as I began to speak, Grimm spun on his heel, turned to me and shoved his face in mine. He began shouting, spittle raining down on me, and jutting his index finger into my chest.
Quite frankly, it happened fast, and I don’t remember much of what he was shouting, other than I should have called his office for comment. I tried explaining it was an aggregated report – and that I’m asking him for comment now.
He kept shouting. One of his goons was stooped over behind him, face next to Grimm’s, nodding along.
I said again that I’m asking for comment now. “Has anything changed, congressman? Is the report factually wrong? Are you still being investigated?”
He charged down the hallway, two staffers in tow. I called after him, “Has anything changed, congressman?”
Grimm didn’t verbally threaten me like he did Louis and Scotto, but like Scotto, I’ve never seen an elected official so angry, and his behavior certainly conveyed the message well enough. He didn’t want me asking that question. I didn’t report on it at the time as it’s a rather serious allegation, and I had turned my camera off (a mistake I will never make again).
That kind of outburst is classic schoolyard bully material. Move fast, get in someone’s face, shout over them, run away before they come to their senses. (And, in the video, you can see the shock come across Scotto’s face and slow his reaction. He recovered well and defended the questioning.)
I expect in the next few days you’ll hear more stories like this. Grimm is a hothead – even his staff says so - and it’s been just a matter of time before someone caught it on tape.
There have been other examples of Grimm’s short fuse, including one notable incident from 1999 that could hint to a troubling abuse of authority.
A retired NYPD officer came forward in 2011 and claimed Grimm abused his authority when he got into a bar brawl with his date’s husband. According to the retired cop, Grimm told the man he would “disappear where nobody would find him.” He allegedly left the club and returned back with FBI and NYPD personnel, waved his gun around, verbally abused patrons, and ordered “all the white people, get out of here.” Grimm has denied the allegations, but the police report and Justice Department investigation have been withheld from the public.
Grimm continues to defend the despicable behavior he displayed last night to Michael Scotto as “verbally [taking] the reporter to task” because he was “disrespectful.” But Grimm needs to realize that the media plays a vital role in informing the public, and holding our elected officials accountable. Scotto was doing his duty as a reporter in asking a question that the congressman has been successfully dodging for years (he has never fully commented on the investigation other than to claim his hands are clean, and that this is a media hit).
Threatening a reporter with physical violence isn’t “taking a reporter to task.” It’s a violent threat pure and simple. Any decent reporter is open to criticism and discussion, but Grimm is attempting to chill speech and silence journalists in the same brutish, primitive way as any two-bit tyrant.
This is behavior unbecoming of United States congressman. If Grimm doesn’t like the public spotlight, or can’t handle the scrutiny required to keep our legislators clean, then it’s time he reconsider running for office.