Dawn Hobbs, former crime and courts reporter for the Santa Barbara News-Press, bantered with Ampersand Publishing attorney Barry Cappello when she took the stand on Friday, September 7 to testify as a government witness against the daily newspaper, which is accused of illegal interference with union organizing. If he is not the one to cross-examine her, she told the high-profile litigator and lead counsel among the four attorneys and two parlaegals sitting at the News-Press‘s defense table, “I’ll be disappointed.” Hobbs was fired from the News-Press for what her superiors called disloyalty; the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) assert the reason was legally protected union activity. NLRB attorneys are seeking back pay, benefits, and job reinstatement for Hobbs and eight colleagues who were also fired.
Under questioning by NLRB attorneys, Hobbs presented her accomplishments as a reporter, which include 10 state and national awards, two of them for stories in the Los Angeles Times, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination from former News-Press managing editor Jerry Roberts, whose resignation helped spark the union organizing effort. Quick and vigilant by nature, a tense and driven Hobbs engaged in a bit of braggadocio, saying that she was sometimes able to piece together the circumstances of a crime sooner than entire teams of detectives. Hobbs also presented her bona fides as one of the leading union organizers at the News-Press, alongside 28-year-veteran Melinda Burns.
Hobbs was fired from the paper in the aftermath of a February, 2007 demonstration in which she and five other News-Press reporters, plus the recently fired Burns, stood on the Anapamu Street footbridge displaying signs for freeway motorists passing underneath, most conspicuously a large banner reading, “Cancel your newspaper today.” As evidence that the demonstration was a protected union activity and not a fatal misstep on the part of the Teamsters’ union counsel, Hobbs cited several previous rallies and demonstrations where the union activists had displayed identical signage. The difference this time was that Hobbs and the other five reporters were called, one-by-one into a conference room three days later and asked by News-Press attorney Dugan Kelley if they had participated. Answering yes, they were told that this was disloyalty which the News-Press would not tolerate, and handed them each their walking papers. “I said, ‘This is union related, federally protected activity,’” Hobbs testified. “He said, ‘No, it isn’t.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ He said, ‘No, it isn’t, and it won’t be tolerated.’”
Using Hobbs’s testimony, NLRB lawyers continued their quest to show that reporters Anna Davison and Melinda Burns were fired for union activism. Dismissed before the footbridge demonstration, they were told the reason they were being let go was because their reporting - on topics ranging from street trees to environmental regulations - was slanted to support their own opinions. When NLRB attorney Steve Wyllie asked Hobbs whether Editor Scott Steepleton had held trainings or workshops on eliminating bias from reporting, as Steepleton claimed under oath, the defense erupted into objections. Cappello complained that the NLRB asked every one of their witnesses that same question. The NLRB lawyers responded that they would stop asking the question if the defense was willing to stipulate that there were no such workshops. Cappello was not willing to so stipulate, and Judge William Kocol ruled that the question was admissible. “No,” Hobbs answered.
The NLRB also collected Hobbs’s testimony regarding an August 24 action in which more than a dozen employees walked single file from Hobbs’s desk to Wendy McCaw’s office to deliver a letter of protest regarding the paper’s management. Hobbs asserted that the gesture was quiet, orderly, and brief. The NLRB aims to discredit Steepleton’s testimony that the event, whose participants received suspension notices, was disruptive and intimidating. To support Steepleton’s point, News-Press attorneys have made much of an emailed message following the event in which reporter and participant Tom Schultz exulted, “We rocked the house.”
That email become the focus of a dust-up between Cappello and Hobbs as her testimony ended on Friday. Throughout the trial, Cappello has repeatedly objected that the union did not provide documents subpoenaed by the defense. The NLRB has consistently responded that the subpoenaed documents are part of News-Press records and therefore already in the defense’s possession. The judge has overruled Cappello’s objections while promising a separate hearing on the subpoena issues. However, when the NLRB introduced the email exchange between Hobbs and Schultz, including Hobbs’s response, Cappello went ballistic. “This wasn’t a document we even had,” he practically shouted, and insisted on challenging Hobbs on the spot. Hobbs conceded that she had provided union attorney Ira Gottlieb with the correspondence only a day before she was scheduled to testify. How, Cappello demanded of Hobbs, could she possibly have failed to locate this email on her computer at the time it was subpoenaed? “I guess I looked the wrong way,” Hobbs responded. Perhaps alluding to Hobbs’ boast at the beginning of her testimony, about solving crimes faster than law enforcement, Cappello retorted, “Sort of like the way the police conduct their searches?” Hobbs smiled sardonically.
Hobbs is scheduled to return to the stand on Monday, September 10.