Costly Victory: Former Santa Barbara News-Press editor Jerry Roberts, after three-and-a-half years of hell, has won a $900,000 victory over owner Wendy McCaw—but it could be years before he sees a penny.
Even if Roberts prevails, despite McCaw’s appeals that are as sure to come as the next rainstorm, the arbitration award goes for attorney fees and arbitration expenses Roberts had to absorb while multi-millionaire McCaw was pitting a reported $2.4 million campaign against him.
Meanwhile, since Roberts resigned on July 6, 2006, on grounds that McCaw interfered with the news, he’s had to battle cancer, McCaw’s $25 million breach of contract demand, and his former paper’s sleazy front page false insinuation that he was responsible for child pornography found on his computer.
The computer not only had been used by several prior editors, but was purchased, plugged in, and used by the paper without having been wiped clean. The porn apparently was buried in the computer when the paper bought it. Roberts denied any connection and vehemently protested the smear. The matter was dropped.
Following Roberts’s speaking out at a public meeting shortly after he, top editors, and this columnist resigned, McCaw filed the arbitration action claiming Roberts was to blame for the News-Press’s public image problems. According to arbitrator Deborah Rothman, whose order finding for Roberts was made public today, McCaw, represented by Santa Barbara attorney Barry Cappello, “fought each and every issue with equal ferocity, frequently proceeding in a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, go-for-broke, leave-no-stone-unturned campaign to punish Roberts for (the newspaper’s) public drubbing.”
“McCaw is capable of great vindictiveness and appears to relish the opportunity to wield her considerable wealth and power in furtherance of what she believes to be righteous causes,” the arbitrator wrote.
What apparently infuriated McCaw was when Roberts, at an August 25, 2006, public town hall meeting, called her arbitration action “nothing more than an attempt to silence me and to threaten my family’s financial future in retaliation for speaking out about ethics at the paper.”
Roberts said today, “The award is a decisive victory for ethical journalism.” He added, “Ethics, not money, was always the issue for me. I am elated to finally be so fully vindicated, and I’m glad to recover most of my family’s financial outlay for my defense.”
In rejecting all of the News-Press claims, Rothman agreed that McCaw’s true objective in the arbitration was to punish Roberts in “retaliation for speaking out about ethics at the paper.”
To avoid paying the $900,000 now, McCaw could, and no doubt will, file a challenge in Superior Court, which would require her to post a bond in excess of that amount, a Roberts spokesperson said. If she loses in lower courts, she could take the case up to the California Supreme Court, which accepts only a select number of cases.
This spells further legal costs for Roberts, who is hardly in a position to absorb more expenses —as well as for McCaw, who is.
The arbitrator declined to award damages to either McCaw or Roberts. Asked to comment, News-Press attorney Barry Cappello replied: “The News-Press intends to take every step to reverse this miscarriage of justice and we have begun the process of petitioning the courts to vacate the award.
“It is a sad example of some of the abuses that can take place when parties are outside the actual court system. It is with the judiciary that we will now pursue our petition to seek redress and reversal of this arbitrator’s invalid ruling.
“After ruling in favor of the News-Press, arbitrator Rothman mysteriously reversed herself and found that neither the News-Press nor Jerry Roberts were due any damages. In short, she ruled both sides lost. Even more strangely she then ruled that even though Jerry Roberts lost his multi-million dollar claim against the News-Press he, but not the News-Press, was entitled to attorney fees. For Roberts to now chortle that it wasn’t about the ‘money’ one must ask then why did he sue for millions of dollars in damages? Roberts lost and receives nothing. The ruling so far only awards the ‘claimed’ attorneys fees, much of which was paid, not by Roberts, but by third parties.
“Arbitrator Rothman’s rulings are void because she violated the jurisdictional requirements to rule expeditiously. She also billed over $45,000 additional dollars after receiving over $100,000 from the News-Press already. These last bills were sent without any meaningful explanation showing the basis for the charges. The News-Press asked several times for a simple explanation, and the request for information was rejected by the arbitrator so they were not paid. The News-Press will not pay them until someone explains the basis for them.” The $900,000 includes $167,000 in arbitrator fees, which do not go to Roberts, Cappello pointed out. “Much of it has been paid already throughout the arbitration by the News-Press.”
There is also speculation that McCaw could at some point file an action in federal court, where she has had marked success in avoiding having to rehire eight reporters she fired after a union protest. After the resignation of Roberts and others, the newsroom, seeking protection against what journalists felt was McCaw’s interference with legitimate news-gathering, voted to affiliate with the Teamsters.
McCaw fought that tooth and nail. A National Labor Relations Board judge found that the firings were a violation of labor law and recommended that the eight be rehired. That decision is pending before the full NLRB board. When the NLRB attorney asked that the eight be rehired, a federal judge and a federal circuit court panel refused, on the ironic grounds that the reporters were seeking to control the news rather than objecting to McCaw’s bias.
The NLRB board, missing several members due to Washington, D.C. politics, still has not acted on returning the journalists to work.
Barney Brantingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (805) 965-5205, Ext. 230. He writes online columns and a print column for Thursdays.