Judge: Reporters not liable for lawyer fees; [LATE TAMPA Edition]

GRAHAM BRINKSt. Petersburg Times. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Aug 19, 2004. pg. 4.B

Copyright Times Publishing Co. Aug 19, 2004

Two investigative reporters who accused their bosses in a lawsuit of distorting their story about growth hormones in milk won't have to pay nearly $2-million in attorneys' fees to a local Fox affiliate, a judge ruled Wednesday.

After a two-hour hearing, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Vivian Maye ruled that Jane Akre and Steve Wilson filed their 1998 lawsuit against WTVT-Ch. 13 in good faith. As the case proceeded through the court system, judges agreed it had enough merit to go to trial, Maye said. And a jury ruled, at least in part, in Akre's favor, even though that decision was later overturned by an appeals court, Maye noted.

The station had asked for nearly $2-million in attorneys' fees and costs. Maye will rule later on whether to grant Fox's request for about $37,000 in court costs.

The judge did grant the station $18,412 for costs related to the appeal and reserved ruling on another $43,747 in other appeals costs. Still, the judge's decision Wednesday largely let Akre and Wilson off the hook.

"Yes, it's nice not to have nearly $2-million in fees hanging over us anymore," Akre said after the hearing.

The station could appeal the ruling.

Akre and Wilson, who are married, brought national credentials to WTVT-Ch. 13 when they were hired in 1996. Each had more than 20 years of experience - Wilson was an Emmy-winning alumnus of Inside Edition, and Akre spent time at CNN.

The conflict began in 1997 while the pair worked on a story about bovine growth hormone, or BGH, a controversial substance manufactured by the Monsanto Corp.

Wilson and Akre sued the station after they were released early from their contracts in 1997. They claimed station management and lawyers buckled to pressure from Monsanto Corp. to distort their story. The station did not air the couple's report.

Fox has long maintained that it never asked Wilson and Akre to lie in their story. The station says the two refused to be objective and were fired for insubordination.

In August 2000, a jury awarded Akre $425,000, saying the station retaliated against her for threatening to blow the whistle on a false or distorted news report. The same jury decided the station had not wronged Wilson.

The station appealed the $425,000 award. Florida's Second District Court of Appeal eventually overturned the decision, saying Akre failed to show the station violated any state laws.

The appeals court said Akre's threat to report the station's actions to the Federal Communications Commission didn't deserve protection under the state whistle blower statute.

The station used that ruling to go after the nearly $2-million in fees. In some cases, the winning party can collect their attorneys' fees and court costs from the other side.

Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.


Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.


Maye, Vivian,  Akre, Jane,  Wilson, Steve

Dateline:   TAMPA
Text Word Count: 463