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Trouble

by Jordan Green and Amy Kingsley

An activist and journalist who now blogs under the handle the “Troublemaker” helped police gather information in 2003 about a strip club operator by wearing a wire during an interview conducted under the guise of gathering news.

Ben Holder said he was pitching a freelance story to the Carolina Peacemaker, a newspaper that serves Greensboro’s African American community, while simultaneously agreeing to work with the police. The story concerned suspected illegal activities at the Game Time Lounge, a club in the Glenwood neighborhood rumored to be popular among off-duty police officers. The owners and editor of the Peacemaker in 2003 said Holder never pitched such a story.

The revelation, which was buried deep inside the most recent installment of a series of articles written by local author Jerry Bledsoe for the Rhinoceros Times, created an immediate stir within journalism and blogging circles in Greensboro. Traditional journalists, bloggers, supporters and detractors all weighed in on the ethical dilemmas posed by mixing activist and journalistic roles. Holder, for his part, has defended himself by depicting his journalistic activities as adjunct to his role as a community activist. The former housing inspector has campaigned to close down massage parlors and end the sale of crack pipes in low-income neighborhoods.

“Wearing a wire is no different than when I rode around buying crack pipes, writing down times and places and taking it to the police,” Holder said in an interview with YES! Weekly on Monday. “And we developed a plan together to attack it. If people want to crucify me for wearing a wire, crucify me for the Asian massage parlors…. It’s still information given to the local authorities.”

Holder became aware of problems at the Game Time Lounge in the course of his activism. After police raided the bar in August 2003, an event triggered by rumors of prostitution and drug use, Holder called the department for information. When they found out he was in contact with the club owner Otis Dunlap, the police and Holder made a plan.

Holder called Dunlap and told the bar owner he wanted to write an article about his side of the story, according to the Rhinoceros Times. Dunlap agreed to the interview, and Holder met with police and Al Stewart, an investigator for the Guilford County District Attorney’s office and former police vice captain, to work out the details.

The investigation into Dunlap and the Game Time Lounge overlapped with an internal investigation at the Greensboro Police Department focused on a handful of African American officers. Detective Scott Sanders, who worked in the special intelligence section, took a keen interest in the Game Time Lounge because of rumors the club was being protected by crooked cops, some of whom were already on his radar screen.

Sanders and several other officers resigned under fire or were suspended from the force after it came to light that the section worked outside the chain of command and routinely violated police procedure. In his blog, Holder has defended the ousted officers and accused City Manager Mitchell Johnson of mismanagement, corruption, and lack of transparency. Holder has objected strenuously to accusations by detractors that he was too cozy with police officers, particularly those favored by former Chief David Wray.

“People with badges and guns don’t like me.” Holder said. “They run from me. That whole department is a dripping, leaking bathtub. I happen to know very important people, people on the city council and lawyers who tell me [information] as soon as they know.”

Local blogger Ed Cone defended Holder in a recent post.

“Ben’s an activist, a fighter for people and neighborhoods that often lack a voice in city politics,” he wrote. “If he saw wearing the wire as a way of cleaning up that street, more power to him. I’d love to read the work of someone that passionate and that close to the action.”

Despite his insistence that he’s, more an activist than a journalist, Holder often trumpets his reporting achievements and taunts other journalists in his blog. John Robinson, editor of the News & Record weighed in on the controversy last weekend on his own blog, “The Editor’s Log.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised that anyone is surprised at Ben’s activist role,” Robinson wrote. “If you read more than two posts on ‘The Troublemaker,’ you would conclude that he doesn’t follow the same ethical policies of traditional journalists.”

That post prompted several replies from Holder, who, true-to-form, bragged that he was a better journalist than the entire News & Record staff combined. Traditional reporters in Greensboro have in turn bristled at Holder’s boasts.

“You can beat your chest about being a better journalist than people who do it for a living when you’re not working with the pressures or under the constraints of actual, professional journalism, are accountable to no one and don’t feel any rules or set of ethics apply to you,” wrote News & Record night police reporter Joe Killian in a blog comment.

YES! Weekly editor Brian Clarey also weighed in on controversy.

“Ben’s credibility has always been for s*** in many, many people’s eyes,” Clarey wrote. “He doesn’t cite sources, so while some of his leads may be the actual whisperings he gets from cops, others may be the fully concocted rantings that align with his agenda or smear his enemies.”

While Holder manifests his activist leanings in his blog, his role while working for the Peacemaker – before he started writing his blog in 2005 – is less clear. Holder said he told his editors that he was wearing a wire for the police while working on the Game Time Lounge story. Co-owner Vickie Kilimanjaro and commentary editor Hal Sieber said they did not know Holder recorded interviews for the police.

Joya Wesley, editor of the Peacemaker in 2003, also said she was unaware of the freelance reporter’s undercover police activities.

“I don’t remember him showing me a wire,” Wesley said. “It’s not ringing any bells. This doesn’t seem like something I would totally blank on.”

The Peacemaker’s role in the incident remains unclear. Holder said both Kilimanjaro and Wesley were aware of his plans.

“Mrs. K – she was standing there,” he said. “That’s the woman who was standing in the room when I pulled up my shirt and showed the wire…. Mrs. K said, ‘Ooohh, I don’t like this.'”

In a March 24 interview, Kilimanjaro contradicted Holder’s account.

“I didn’t know he wore a wire,” she said. Holder has tried to make a distinction between journalists bound by traditional rules of ethics and independence, and his own activities as a freelance contributor who wrote about his adventures in activism.

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, said she considered Holder’s collusion with the police well outside acceptable ethical strictures for journalists.

“Journalists bend over backwards to remain separate from law enforcement,” McBride said. “That’s why you see lawyers fighting subpoenas so reporters won’t have to testify in court. To actually voluntarily strap up a recording device and do the work of law enforcement is way over the boundary of what would be considered acceptable.”

Whether he considers himself a journalist or not, Holder has had some journalistic successes. He shared an NC Press Award for investigative reporting with Daniel Bayer (who occasionally contributes to this publication) in 2002 for a series on Asian massage parlors.

Holder said he agreed to testify in court against the massage parlor operators, while staff members at the newspaper avoided testifying with the assistance of the NC Press Association.

“As much as I would have liked to get out of testifying, the Press Association did not do anything to help me and I had to go to court,” he wrote in his blog. “That event clearly defines my freelance position. I am much more a Superman than a Clark Kent.”

Never in his career has Holder held himself up as a traditional reporter.

“Y’all go to college and do internships to learn this,” he said on Monday. “I cut my teeth doing high-speed chases with the operators of the massage parlors on Lee Street – and they were chasing me.

Holder also made some enemies at the Peacemaker, including Sieber. The now-retired editor described Holder as a “loose cannon” who was unwilling to accept any criticism and who once threatened to beat him up.

“It was almost as if he was a detective using the Peacemaker as an excuse rather than a reporter working on a story,” Sieber said.

Holder denied that he ever threatened Sieber, but he did acknowledge that he threatened to beat up a subsequent news editor at the paper. He said the Peacemaker refused to run his story about the Game Time Lounge because Joe Williams, a prominent African American lawyer who represented Otis Dunlap, objected to it.

Asked about the allegation that the story was killed after Williams expressed concern, Kilimanjaro said, “No, no.”

Although Holder defended himself against allegations of journalistic malpractice, he did express some remorse about wearing the wire to the meeting with Dunlap. Holder said the meeting did not yield any important information, and that he eventually developed a friendship with Dunlap.

In his blog post, Holder said the police wired him up in a parking lot and that Dunlap drove past while Sanders connected the wires. During their conversation, Dunlap said he knew firefighters but no police officers and offered no fodder for Sanders’ case against Greensboro police Officer Julius Fulmore, one of the targets of the special intelligence investigation.

During the conversation Holder received a call from Officer Mike Toomes.

“So, not only did I get wired in a parking lot and spotted by the person of interest,” Holder wrote, “but the police were also calling me during our chat. By this time I was getting a little pissed with the whole thing and suggested to Otis [Dunlap] we step outside and finish our conversation.”

Holder said he maintained a friendship with Dunlap after his collaboration with the police, but never told his source that he wore a wire during the investigation into the Game Time Lounge.

“Me and my wife talked about it,” Holder said. “She said, ‘Ben, you’ve got to talk to Otis.’ I said ‘I know, I know.’ Was it cowardly on my part to not tell Otis? Yes. Insignificant also. It wouldn’t have affected our relationship.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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