JUDGE SAYS NO TO FOX REQUEST FOR SUMMARY JUDGEMENT; LANDMARK TRIAL SET TO BEGIN MAY 10
TAMPA (April 1)—After predictions by Fox Television and its lawyers that the whistleblower case of two former WTVT reporters would never make it to trial, a Florida judge has cleared the way for the landmark trial to begin May 10.
The suit, filed almost exactly a year ago (on April 2) by investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, alleges they were fired for refusing orders from WTVT news managers and Fox lawyers who directed them to lie and distort the facts about a dairy hormone they discovered in Florida’s milk supply. The station has long said there is no basis for the charges by the journalists.
Attorney Patricia Anderson, representing Fox Television and it’s network-owned Channel 13, argued in court that the whistleblower claim filed by the journalists should be thrown out because it did not meet certain standards set by Florida law. She cited alleged technical deficiencies in the suit and claimed it should be dismissed for those reasons and because she claimed there were no real issues of fact for a jury to decide.
In his ruling, Circuit Court Judge Robert Bonanno said, "genuine issues of material fact remain on all the grounds raised by Defendant in their Motion…As such, this Court is prohibited from entering a summary judgement."
Attorney Thomas McGowan, Anderson’s law partner who has also been working on the case, responded today, "I always defer to the wisdom of the courts."
In praising her own attorneys, Jane Akre said, "John Chamblee did a magnificent job documenting the legal basis for our claim. We are entirely confident that he and Steve Wenzel and Matt Fenton will do an equally superb job presenting the facts to the jury in a few weeks."
In a year since the case was filed, Wilson has personally taken the depositions of several WTVT and Fox employees. The defendant company and its lawyers have bitterly argued that his efforts were motivated by a desire to intimidate the witnesses and disrupt the station’s operations. The judge and a special legal master assigned to hear pre-trial discovery disputes have never agreed that Wilson has acted inappropriately in deposing top company officials including Fox News chief Roger Ailes and a host of others.
"So far, we’ve heard sworn testimony that our editors and Fox lawyers never found a single misreported fact in any of the 83 scripts we proposed to broadcast," Wilson said.
"The news director who hired us has testified once Fox took over, there was little support for the kind of aggressive reporting that sometimes steps on toes of big, powerful corporations like Monsanto," he continued. (That news director, Daniel Webster, was subsequently himself fired by Fox. He is now a news director for CBS in charge of its San Francisco station’s news department.)
"And after launching a personal smear campaign and telling reporters we walked away from the story because we couldn’t get our way, WTVT’s news VP, Phil Metlin, has admitted under oath we provided final scripts exactly in accordance with his direction but he never even looked at them!" Wilson added.
Meanwhile, the defendant has taken only a handful of depositions and never followed through on its stated intention to depose more than 20 individuals outside Florida. With the trial set to start in just five weeks, they have deposed only the plaintiffs, a postal worker, and three Florida dairymen.
Wilson and Akre were hired to produce hard-hitting investigative reports, a mandate which changed once Fox formally closed on its purchase of the station in January 1998. Their first report, an expose on the widespread secret use of Bovine Growth Hormone in Florida, was set to begin February 24, 1997 but was derailed after the hormone maker hired an influential New York lawyer to pressure Fox.
The journalists say they were ultimately fired for refusing to report information they knew to be false and misleading and to slant the story in Monsanto’s favor to avoid potential litigation and the loss of advertising revenue Fox and its associated companies receive.
When the Society of Professional Journalists recognized the reporters with an Award for Ethics, Fox responded by demanding that the award be rescinded on the grounds there was no basis for their claims. SPJ declined to do so, despite a letter campaign which involved at least two WTVT employees and its Vice President of News.
Wilson and Akre were also cited with the Joe Calloway Award for Civic Courage, awarded by a foundation supported by the family of consumer activist Ralph Nader.