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Steepleton, Apodaca Return to the Witness Stand

News-Press‘s Cappello Outlines Plan for His Side of NLRB Trial


Following rumors yesterday that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lawyers might have reached the end of their witness list in the ongoing case against the Santa Barbara News-Press, Teamsters organizer Marty Keegan stepped off the stand today and made way for News-Press attorney Barry Cappello to begin laying out the opposition’s take on the paper’s turmoil. The transition marked a high point in today’s proceedings. Cappello announced that he would be calling a list of expert witnesses in addition to the paper’s owner, Wendy McCaw, and possibly her fiance and co-publisher, Arthur von Wiesenburger. Though tomorrow was initially scheduled to be the last day of the trial, it seems likely the proceedings will extend will through the following week.

As Keegan finished up testimony that began yesterday afternoon, the court heard of his appearance on of the KTMS radio’s The Paul Berenson Show, in which he discussed his view on the News-Press‘s sins. Cappello seemed to strain the fact that the News-Press reporter’s desire for “byline protection” - a right that allows reporters to remove their name from articles they feel were too heavily edited - was not among the list of problems at the time Keegan gave the interview. (The matter has come up in recent testimony from fired News-Press reporters.) Beyond that, the remainder of Keegan’s testimony focused on his role union rallying and anti-News-Press protests - for example, whether he was directly responsible for creating certain McCaw-mocking slogans or union-related emails circulated among News-Press employees.

Cappello’s attempts to question Keegan were interrupted with an almost continuous stream of objections from NLRB attorneys Brian Gee and Steve Wyllie. That would be the case for the entire day’s proceedings, as hardly anyone questioning witnesses could get a few words out without confrontation - however friendly - from the opposing side. This practice, combined with numerous delays as the various involved lawyers attempted to search for documents or make sure that everyone had the same version of a given document, made for a long, slow day. At one point, Judge William Kocol addressed all the lawyers and urged them to stick to questions that directly affect the manner at hand: whether what News-Press reporters did to ostensibly protect journalistic integrity constitutes protected union activities. “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Kocol said. “We’re getting to a point in this proceeding that we need to refocus on the central issues.”

Right behind Keegan was a familiar face to anyone who’s been following the trial: News-Press associate editor Scott Steepleton, who has testified previously. Today, Steepleton provided information about his role in writing employee performance evaluations. In answer to Cappello’s questions, Steepleton discussed whether employees who supported the in-office union movement did worse in their evaluation. Steepleton said no, by and large; many of those who were pro-union still did well enough on their evaluations to received bonuses.

When asked about former reporter Leana Orsua’s evaluation from 2006, Steepleton noted that she was dinged for having made “one big error already” in her reporting. Steepleton could not, however, recall exactly, what that error was. When union attorney Ira Gottlieb suggested that Orsua’s foul-up could have been her quoting a speech Bill Clinton made in Los Angeles for a story she wrote on the former presidents’ talk in Santa Barbara, Steepleton said he couldn’t remember if that constituted Orsua’s “one big error.”

Exchanges between Gottlieb and Steepleton became somewhat heated when the former began questioning the latter about whether ethical or criminal infractions could result in a News-Press employee being punished or even fired. Steepleton said he didn’t know, though he postulated that turning in a falsified document or physically attacking a fellow employee seemed like misdeed that could get a person fired from his newspaper. Upon being asked to come up with a criminal infraction that would not get a person fired from the News-Press, Steepleton offered “a speeding ticket.” Gottlieb then followed up with “What about drunk driving?” Much debate between Gottlieb, Kocol and Cappello then followed, but ultimate Steepleton answered that no one, to his recollection, had lost their job at the News-Press for driving drunk. Several audience members looked over to Travis Armstrong, the editor of the News-Press‘s editorial page, who was convicted of driving under the influence in 2006. Armstrong did not perceptibly respond to the exchange.

Gottlieb also asked whether anyone had ever been fired for fixing a sign to a chain link fence on a footbridge, in obvious reference to the eight reporters who lost their jobs for alleged disloyalty following their displaying of a banner reading “Cancel Your Newspaper Today” to the Anapamu Street bridge of Highway 101 in February 2007. Steepleton said “yes,” then revised his answer. “I misspoke,” Steepleton said. “I don’t think anyone got fired for doing that.” He then added that he thought “the court adjudicates what’s legal or illegal.” In reference to the fired reporters, Steepleton said “The employees on the footbridge - all of their names escape me, but they’ve come up before.”

The day’s last witness was News-Press human resources director Yolanda Apodaca, who has also previously taken the stand. Sick with a cold and soft-spoken sometimes to the point of being inaudible, Apodaca spoke of her knowledge of hirings and firings at the paper, where she’s worked since 1991. Most importantly, Cappello had her go through a litany of fired News-Press employees and reasons why these people lost their jobs. Repeatedly, Apodaca gave evidence that many employees had been fired without warnings, either verbal or written, and that prior notice was not needed if an employee’s foul-up was deemed bad enough. (Throughout the afternoon, Cappello hammered in the point that progressive punishment systems were not practiced at the News-Press.)

Later, upon follow-up questioning from Wyllie, Apodaca elaborated that the majority of the fired employees she had mentioned were comparatively short-term hires - ranging between a week to 90 days in their time at the paper - and not longstanding employees like those fired after the 101 overpass incident were.

Apodaca also explained policies in the News-Press employee handbook, which described neither the existence of a metaphorical wall between the paper’s editorial and business sides nor any text barring employees from discussion office matters with union organizers.

The trial resumes tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. at the Santa Barbara County Bankruptcy Court.

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