If ex-News-Press editor Jerry Roberts sues owner Wendy McCaw for up to a billion dollars for alleged smear and libel, as some expect, the action may never see a courtroom.
That’s because McCaw-who already has filed a $25 million arbitration claim against Roberts-may have protected herself from any Roberts civil suit.
If so, any lawsuit by Roberts seeking actual and punitive damages over Sunday’s News-Press, page one computer-child pornography story would never go before a jury.
But even if a judge rules that the employment contract Roberts signed requires that at all disputes be settled by an arbitrator out of court, there’s still Plan B. That, his Santa Barbara attorney, Dennis Merenbach, told me Sunday, would be to amend his answer to McCaw’s $25 million arbitration claim against him and still seek damages that way.
The odd thing about the innuendo-laced, byline-free story which ran Sunday was that it linked by insinuation Roberts to porn found on a Mac G-4 computer that was not only used by him, but at least three prior editors. Similarly, because the computer was bought used, it’s as likely as not that the hard drive had porn buried within its guts before the News-Press ever purchased it.
The News-Press printed the story even though it was told months ago by police that no charges could be brought because it was impossible to learn who put the reported 15,000 pornographic images on the computer in question. In January, police investigators “advised me that no one could, or would, be prosecuted for the data found on the hard drive,” said Merenbach in a sworn statement.
“Finally, investigator Chad Hunt advised me that Nick Montano-Chief of Security for the News-Press-who had been pressing for prosecution of Mr. Roberts, had been informed that there was insufficient recoverable data from the subject hard drive to prosecute anyone,” Merenbach said.
On March 2, the DA’s office told police that it was dropping the case for lack of evidence and that “there appears to be no single viable suspect.”
But that didn’t stop the paper from trying to make Roberts the fall guy. So why is McCaw out to get him? True, he resigned, but editors have quit or been fired before him. Apparently, McCaw blames him for the meltdown that has seen top editors and writers quit, others fired, and the paper get a rotten reputation.
Roberts, at a Sunday news conference, said: “Today’s front-page story smearing, as regards to me, is utterly false, defamatory, and malicious, and published with knowledge that, as to me, it is completely untrue.” He denied downloading any porn of any nature. I’d believe in the Second Coming and Alien Invasion before I’d believe Jerry would stoop to kiddie porn. “Today, the shameful ethics of the News-Press and its owner are on full display for all the world to see,” Roberts said.
According to documents released Sunday by Roberts, former News-Press systems manager Raul Gil said he resigned in disgust after 23 years with the paper because he felt management was intent on wrongly using the porn issue to “punish” Roberts for resigning last July 6, and blaming him for the ongoing staff meltdown.
From the documents, it appeared that management was zeroing in on Roberts over the porn issue to the exclusion of anyone else. In a written statement, Gil said, “I make this declaration voluntarily because I believe the News-Press is preparing to use heinous information of dubious source to ruin the reputation of Jerry Roberts, who I believe is an honorable and decent man who left the paper because of his concerns over journalistic ethics of management.”
“The actions of News-Press representatives in this regard offend my conscience and compel me to write this declaration, even at the risk of facing retaliation. It is the right thing to do. I am greatly concerned that I, like others, will be sued for daring to speak the truth. I also believe that silence at this point would be an unethical act and allow my employers to ruin a good man.”
Gil fell into disfavor after he wrote a report pointing out that there were many ways the porn could have gotten on the computer, even though it was the one Roberts was using when he quit. Still unexplained are how the top editor could have possibly gotten any work done while downloading over 15,000 images, and why he would have left office knowing there was child porn on his computer that-if discovered-could have possibly sent him to prison for many years.
So where will it all end? In Roberts’ case, probably not before a Superior Court jury, but in the hands of one person; the arbitrator now handing McCaw’s $25 million claim against him for breach of contract.
That’s “ongoing,” as Roberts said in answer to a question at Sunday’s press conference. You’ll recall that McCaw filed a $500,000 claim against him in the wake of his resignation, then upped it to $25 mil after he counterclaimed for $10 million.
How much will Roberts seek in his lawsuit-claim? Merenbach told me that the purpose of punitive damages is to discourage someone from repeating a harmful action. If you are dealing with a reputed billionaire, the sum must be suitably high, and he cited huge awards that juries have assessed in tobacco cases.
If Roberts wins his case he might end up owning the paper he quit last July. All documents released by Roberts are available on the Santa Barbara Newsroom website.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at email@example.com or 805-965-5205. He is a staff member of the Santa Barbara Independent and writes online columns twice weekly and a print column on Thursdays.