He knows it may not look good: An investigative reporter with more than 10 years covering a controversial case leaves journalism to work for one of the guys at the center of the story.

Still, ask former Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter whether his decision to join the staff of controversial antiterrorism crusader Steve Emerson might cast doubt on more than a decade of reporting on terrorism accusations against local Muslims, and he offers a surprising answer.

It doesn’t matter much.

“Those who are going to care about this are partisans of one side or another,” said Fechter, who last week revealed his plans to serve as editor in chief of the Web site operated by Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism. “If you thought I was awful before this, you’ll still think I’m awful. If not, this won’t change your mind.”

Perhaps. But it is a confusing coda for the career of a reporter who has resisted allegations of being Emerson’s megaphone for more than a decade.

Known as the first Tampa Bay area reporter to allege former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian had criminal links to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in 1995, Fechter stood at the center of a more than 10-year struggle over Al-Arian’s guilt or innocence.

Fechter said when he told his bosses at the Tribune that he was leaving the paper for another job, he hadn’t been covering Al-Arian for more than a year – he officially left the beat in spring 2006 after telling them he was going to date Cherie Krigsman, one of the federal prosecutors seeking to convict the former professor for aiding a terrorist organization.

Critics, including a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, say Fechter’s romance and new employer prove longtime allegations that his work had an anti-Islamic bias.


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