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Alfonso Chardy, journalist who helped expose Iran-contra affair, dies at 72

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Alfonso Chardy, a Miami Herald journalist who anchored Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting that helped expose the Iran-contra affair, a covert Reagan administration network to aid rebels in Nicaragua that brought riveting televised hearings in Congress, died April 9 at a hospital in Miami. He was 72.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Siobhan Morrissey.

During a more than four-decade career, Mr. Chardy covered the Middle East as the Herald’s Jerusalem-based bureau chief from 1989 to 1990 and was part of three other Pulitzer-winning teams at the paper, including coverage of a Cuban boy, Elián González, who was returned to the island in 2000 after a raid by immigration agents in Miami and a months-long court battle that became a test of U.S. asylum rules.

Assigned to follow Latin American affairs in Washington in 1982, Mr. Chardy built a reputation as a dogged chronicler of U.S. policymaking in a region locked in Cold War proxy battles. In Nicaragua, where leftist Sandinista guerrillas seized power in 1979, Washington’s money and support had flowed to anti-Sandinista rebels known as contras.

Congress later limited contra military aid and then imposed a hold in late 1984. Hints of possible secret workarounds began to reach Mr. Chardy, whose last name was Chardi but was once misspelled by an editor in his native Mexico and adopted as his byline. Mr. Chardy began tapping his sources in Washington and with the rebels.

In 1985, he reported that a then little-known National Security Council adviser, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, had promised the contras that President Ronald Reagan would never abandon them. About the same time, a Beirut newspaper, al-Shiraa, broke stories about back-channel U.S. arms sales to Iran — then locked in a war with Iraq — for the release of hostages held by Iranian-allied groups in Lebanon.

Mr. Chardy’s sources told him that North was involved in the arms shipments that reached Iran. “The minute I saw Oliver North’s name raised in connection with the arms sales, I said to myself, ‘This is going to lead to the contras,” he wrote in an essay in a 1991 book, “Winning Pulitzers,” by Karen Rothmyer.

Mr. Chardy and the Herald team started to piece together an audacious and illegal U.S. scheme: secretly selling missiles and other weapons to Iran through indirect sources, in violation of an arms embargo, and funneling most of the revenue from the sales to contras.

On Oct. 28, 1986, Mr. Chardy’s byline was on a Herald story that ran across the top of the front page. “With President Reagan’s blessing,” wrote Mr. Chardy, “U.S. officials knitted a worldwide support network stretching from South Korea to Saudi Arabia over the last three years that kept the Nicaraguan rebels alive after Congress curbed and then banned Contra aid, according to administration and rebel officials.”

The piece opened a scramble among the Washington press corps for more details. Then a bombshell: Attorney General Edwin Meese III announced in November 1986 that $28 million from the Iran arm sales ended up with the contras. Soon, North was fired from the NSC.

A story by Mr. Chardy on Nov. 27, 1986, citing sources in Congress and with the contras, said Reagan had previously authorized North “to find alternative sources of financial aid for the Nicaraguan rebels after Congress moved to bar CIA aid to them.”

On Dec. 11, 1986, a story by Mr. Chardy and Herald colleague Sam Dillon described a Boeing 707 cargo plane that ferried weapons to the Middle East bound for Iran and returned to Central America “laden with Soviet-made arms for the Nicaraguan rebels.”

Mr. Chardy’s reporting uncovered links to other obscure officials involved in aiding the contras, including Robert Owen, an NSC consultant who was North’s go-between with the rebels.

A report in February 1987 by the Tower Commission — an investigative panel created by Reagan and led by a former senator from Texas, John Tower (R) — blamed Reagan for loose oversight that allowed the secret contra program to operate under North and others, using middlemen for the Iran weapons sales such as Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.

In a nationally televised address on March 4, 1987, Reagan acknowledged that he was aware of the arms-for-hostages deals but denied knowing about money diversions to the contras before Meese’s disclosures. The next month, the Miami Herald was awarded a Pulitzer for national reporting. (The New York Times also received a national reporting Pulitzer for coverage into the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion.)

The fallout from Iran-contra was still not over. Joint hearings by House and Senate select committees opened in May 1987, bringing more revelations about Iran-contra during three months of questioning that were broadcast live.

In testimony in early July 1987, North admitted he lied to Congress during earlier questioning about the Iran-contra network and said he diverted funds to the rebels with the knowledge of superiors including the national security adviser, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter. Fawn Hall, North’s secretary, was given immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony about shredding documents and other acts.

“You’ve also admitted you altered some of the documents in which you clearly describe your role,” North was asked by George Van Cleve, the deputy counsel for House Republicans.

“Can you assure this committee that you are not here now lying to protect your commander in chief?” Van Cleve asked later in the testimony.

“I am not lying to protect anybody, Counsel. I came here to tell the truth,” North replied. “I told you that I was going to tell it to you — the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of it has been ugly for me.”

North was convicted in 1989 of obstructing an investigation and destroying evidence. The conviction was overturned on appeal in 1991. Poindexter was convicted of conspiracy, perjury and other counts, but he was also cleared on appeal. Dozens of other officials faced charges related to Iran-contra, including Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, but nearly all were pardoned in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president.

Alfonso Nieto Chardi was born on April 14, 1951, in Mexico City. His father was an accountant, and his mother tended to the home.

He learned English through courses and listening to the radio. He served in the army for six months and then worked as a proofreader and translator at the English-language Mexico City News, where an editor once rendered his name as Chardy. He credited the student protests in Mexico in 1968 and the Mexico City Olympics that year for his interest in journalism as he watched foreign reporters pour into the Mexican capital.

He joined the Associated Press in Mexico City in 1974 and later was an AP correspondent in Buenos Aires and Bogotá. He later freelanced in Central America, including for United Press International, and was in Nicaragua amid celebrations after Sandinista forces overthrew the president, Anastasio Somoza.

Mr. Chardy joined the Miami Herald in 1980, first covering the Mariel boatlift from Cuba when more than 120,0000 people fled by sea seeking to reach Florida. He was part of Pulitzer-winning teams in 1993 for public service in the coverage of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew; in 1999 for investigative reporting into voter fraud that helped overturn a Miami mayoral election; and in 2001 for breaking news in the Elián González case.

He retired in 2017 after several years with the Herald’s Spanish-language sister publication, El Nuevo Herald. He lived in Key Biscayne with his wife, a journalist whom he married in 1994. Other survivors include five nephews and two nieces.

In recounting the Iran-contra reporting, Mr. Chardy said the contras were indispensable in filling in the gaps.

“They exposed Oliver North. They exposed Rob Owen,” he wrote. “They exposed all the principal people.”

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