Thursday, January 11, 2001

Chiquita testimony ordered

Former prosecutor must answer questions about probe

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A former prosecutor was ordered Wednesday to testify about his investigation into the theft of voice-mail messages from Chiquita Brands International Inc. in Cincinnati.

        The ruling in U.S. District Court means former special prosecutor Perry Ancona must answer at least some questions about his involvement in the 1998 investigation.

        The attorneys for a former Chiquita employee, George Ventura, want to question Mr. Ancona as part of their lawsuit against The Cincinnati Enquirer.

        Mr. Ventura contends in his lawsuit that he was a confidential source for Enquirer reporters who wrote a series of articles about Chiquita's business practices in 1998. He contends the Enquirer broke a promise to protect his identity, which the newspaper denies.

        Mr. Ventura was later targeted by prosecutors and charged with illegally accessing Chiquita's voice-mail system. Mr. Ventura eventually pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to probation.

        His lawyers have argued that Mr. Ancona could provide information helpful to their case, but the former prosecutor has refused to cooperate. Mr. Ancona has said he should not have to testify about his work because it was part of a secret grand jury investigation.

        But Magistrate Jack Sherman Jr. ruled that Mr. Ancona can give limited testimony, as long as that testimony does not discuss grand jury voting or deliberations.

        The magistrate said he would be available during the testimony to determine whether Mr. Ancona should answer specific questions.

        Mr. Ancona's lawyer, John Burlew, said he was not sure how much testimony would be required. “It really just isn't clear,” Mr. Burlew said of the ruling. “But whatever (the magistrate) says, we're going to do it.”

        Magistrate Sherman also ruled that the Enquirer's parent company, Gannett, must allow Mr. Ventura's lawyers to read a civil settlement agreement between Gannett and Chiquita. But the judge denied Mr. Ventura's request for a copy of that document.

        As part of that agreement, the Enquirer renounced its articles about Chiquita and stated in a front-page apology that the lead reporter, Michael Gallagher, lied to his editors about how he obtained the voice-mail messages.

        Mr. Gallagher was fired and the newspaper paid Chiquita more than $10 million. Mr. Gallagher later admitted he illegally accessed the voice-mail system and was sentenced to five years probation.

        The magistrate's ruling about the agreement did not appear to break new ground in the case because Mr. Ventura's lawyers already have read a version of the settlement with some passages omitted.

        Gannett attorneys had argued that the passages were omitted because they were protected by attorney-client privilege and not relevant to Mr. Ventura's case.

        The magistrate said Gannett could omit passages again when Mr. Ventura's lawyers inspect the settlement, as long as the company explained the reason for each omission.

        He also ruled that Gannett did not have to turn over documents that would identify a confidential source.


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