Thursday, February 13, 2003

Suit against Enquirer dismissed

Source for Chiquita series claimed breach of confidentiality promise

The Ciucinnati Enquirer

A federal judge on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit that accused The Cincinnati Enquirer of revealing the identity of a confidential news source who provided information about Chiquita Brands International Inc.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Herman J. Weber comes more than three years after George Ventura, a former Chiquita lawyer, sued the newspaper, claiming its reporters broke a promise to keep his name secret.

Ventura said he became the target of a criminal investigation after reporters from the Enquirer failed to protect his identity as a source for articles published in 1998 about Chiquita's business practices.

Enquirer lawyers have said the newspaper did not give prosecutors any information that would reveal Ventura as a source.

In his ruling Wednesday, Weber concluded that "a reasonable jury" could not find that the newspaper breached its promise not to reveal Ventura as a news source. The judge also said that even if the Enquirer had disclosed Ventura's name, the paper could not be held liable for that disclosure.

The reason, the judge said, is an Ohio law that grants immunity from civil liability to anyone who provides information related to a grand jury investigation.

"(Ventura) has not come forward with evidence that defendants disclosed his identity to any individual or entity other than the prosecutor or the grand jury," Weber wrote.

The judge also ruled that the newspaper is not responsible for the actions of fired reporter Michael Gallagher, the lead reporter on the Chiquita articles. Although Gallagher identified Ventura to law enforcement, Weber ruled that the disclosure occurred after the newspaper had fired Gallagher.

"There is no evidence that Gallagher was authorized to act as defendants' agent at that point," the judge wrote.

The judge also ruled that no documents supplied by the Enquirer identified Ventura as a source.

Gallagher was fired in June 1998 after Enquirer editors said he lied to them about how he obtained recordings from the voice-mail boxes of Chiquita executives. Some of those recordings appeared in the Chiquita articles, prompting Chiquita to call for a criminal investigation.

The Enquirer later renounced the articles, published a front-page apology to Chiquita and paid the company a $14 million settlement.

Prosecutors concluded that Ventura gave Gallagher the codes needed to access Chiquita's voice-mail system. Gallagher eventually pleaded to illegally gaining access to the system.

Ventura pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges. Both were sentenced to probation.

Ventura's lawyer, Marc Mezibov, said he would appeal Weber's decision.

"The issue of whether a newspaper and its reporters can breach a promise of confidentiality to a source and then suffer no consequences is an important matter," Mezibov said.

Enquirer publisher Harry Whipple said Weber's ruling confirms that the newspaper never identified a confidential source.

"The whole case was without merit," Whipple said.

Any appeal of Weber's decision would be filed with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

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