Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Gannett: Suit dodges blame




By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer blamed the newspaper's former editor Tuesday for setting off a “journalistic firestorm” with articles about Chiquita Brands International Inc.

        In court papers filed in Washington, D.C., Gannett Co. Inc. argued that Lawrence K. Beaupre's recent lawsuit against the company is an attempt to deny his responsibility for the Chiquita debacle.

        The company contends that Mr. Beaupre, who was then the newspaper's editor, was the “principal decision maker” who oversaw a series of articles about Chiquita in 1998 that the newspaper later renounced.

        It also states that Mr. Beaupre's work led to “one of the most unfortunate, and embarrassing, failures of modern investigative journalism.”

        Gannett's attorneys made the arguments in court papers that seek the dismissal of a lawsuit Mr. Beaupre filed against the company in April.

        Mr. Beaupre's lawsuit claims Gannett officials misled him, made him a scapegoat and ruined his reputation in order to protect themselves and the company.

        His suit alleges that top Gannett officials closely supervised work on the articles and then blamed Mr. Beaupre when problems arose a few weeks after publication.

        Mr. Beaupre said the company's response is not a surprise.

        “They know very well the damage they caused, the damage they inflicted on myself and my family,” Mr. Beaupre said Tuesday. “This is their attempt to put the best face on their unconscionable actions.”

        The company, however, argued that Mr. Beaupre is the one distorting the facts.

        The court papers it filed Tuesday asked a judge to throw out Mr. Beaupre's lawsuit, saying Gannett did nothing to damage Mr. Beaupre's reputation or career.

        Instead, the company claims, it did everything it could to protect Mr. Beaupre when it became clear the Chiquita articles might lead to a criminal investigation and civil litigation.

        “(Mr. Beaupre) — through Gannett's support and significant contributions of financial and legal resources — was never sued and never indicted,” Gannett's attorneys wrote.

        The legal problems began within weeks after the articles about Chiquita's business practices were published.

        The banana company complained that the articles contained quotes from the voice-mail boxes of Chiquita executives. At the time, the paper explained that tapes of the voice mails were obtained from a source within the company.

        Later, however, the lead reporter on the articles, Michael Gallagher, admitted in court that he had illegally accessed Chiquita's voice-mail system. Mr. Gallagher had lied to editors, denying he had accessed the system directly, the Enquirer said.

        Mr. Gallagher was fired and the paper published a front-page apology to Chiquita. Gannett also agreed to pay Chiquita more than $10 million.

        Mr. Beaupre's lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Washington, D.C., contends that Gannett executives never told him he would be forced out of his job as editor.

        In its court filing Tuesday, Gannett argued that Mr. Beaupre was fortunate to have a job at all. The company stated that it was under no contractual obligation to keep Mr. Beaupre in the same job or in any other position.

        Mr. Beaupre “chose to file this lawsuit which — in a stark reversal of reality — minimizes his central responsibility for the legal and journalistic firestorm created by his decisions ... and blames Gannett and its counsel for the consequences to his newspaper career,” the company claimed in court Tuesday.

        A few months after the Chiquita settlement, Mr. Beaupre was assigned to a news executive job with corporate headquarters in Arlington, Va.

        Mr. Beaupre's attorney, Samuel Seymour, said his client was fired by Gannett a few weeks after he filed his lawsuit. Enquirer publisher Harry Whipple declined comment, saying the issue was a personnel matter.

        A Chiquita spokesman also declined comment.

        Attorneys involved in the dispute are scheduled to meet July 14 with Judge Stephanie Duncan-Peters.

        Gannett is asking the judge to move the case to Cincinnati, while Mr. Beaupre wants it in Washington.

       



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