Two years ago last week, The Cincinnati Enquirer published what many at the paper and its parent organization, Gannett Co., hoped would be their shining moment in the journalism sun — the infamous 18-page special report on Chiquita Brands International. The fact that the work is now infamous instead of famous speaks for itself.
The Enquirer spent a year working on the investigation, six weeks negotiating an out-of-court settlement with Chiquita, three days apologizing on its front page — and the past two years trying to live it all down. None of it's been pretty; much has been ugly; now it's just plain sad.
Former Editor Lawrence Beaupre, who oversaw The Enquirer's Chiquita investigation and series of articles, filed a lawsuit on April 13 against his former Gannett bosses, Gannett legal executives and the company's law firm. He alleges that his employer of 32 years hung him out to dry over the Chiquita debacle, removing him from his job here as the result of a secret side deal with Chiquita and not backing him up sufficiently in public or internally.
That makes two lawsuits pending against Gannett over the May 1998 series — the other filed last fall by George Ventura, the ex-Chiquita lawyer who pleaded no contest to providing The Enquirer with access codes for Chiquita's voice mail system. But Beaupre's suit hits Gannett much closer to home.
Here's the loyal company man — the model editor who rose through Gannett's ranks step by step — fighting it out in public over the degree of blame assigned to key participants in the largest public embarrassment in company history. Unfortunately for all involved, the embarrassments keep on coming.
Beaupre is seeking $15 million from Gannett, according to comments made by his attorney, Samuel Seymour, in the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher. Seymour also said he'd seek to make public the settlement agreement between Gannett and Chiquita that resulted in front-page apologies in The Enquirer, a payment to Chiquita in excess of $10 million and the paper's renouncing of its entire series, including work that had nothing to do with the stolen voice mails.
Of course, that agreement will never see the light of day.
If there's been one constant in the past two years of legal maneuvering over what went wrong — criminal plea bargains by Ventura and ex-reporter Michael Gallagher, Beaupre's transfer to a Gannett corporate job in Washington, D.C. and settlements of various lawsuits, both real and threatened — it's the deafening silence. Thanks to Chiquita and Gannett, nobody's said nothing about nothing — and that's not likely to change.
The last thing Gannett officials want is to reveal the details of their settlement with Chiquita. Who knows what really went on behind the scenes, or what still goes on between the companies? Speculation has run wild — that the cash payment was more like $40 million to $50 million; that Gannett would transfer its ownership stake in the Reds to Chiquita CEO and Reds majority owner Carl Lindner; that Chiquita ran Beaupre out of town; that The Enquirer agreed to lay off future negative coverage of Lindner and Chiquita; and that Gannett officials tipped off Chiquita about Ventura's first-person article in Brill's Content.
Beaupre's 57-page lawsuit doesn't shed much light on those rumors, except for alleging that Chiquita and Lindner orchestrated his transfer to Gannett headquarters. The suit does, however, provide a fascinating peek inside 312 Elm St. before and after The Enquirer published its Chiquita series.
It also corroborates several items written about in previous Chiquita/Enquirer coverage both in CityBeat and elsewhere but never officially confirmed.
Highlights (or is that lowlights?)
Among the lawsuit highlights, per Beaupre's version of the facts:
· Chiquita made "the first in an escalating series of threats to sue The Enquirer" in August 1997, just three months after Beaupre had approved Gallagher, reporter Cameron McWhirter and Metro Editor David Wells to begin working on the series. After that, "all decisions regarding the investigation of Chiquita and publication of the Chiquita series" were made in conjunction with Gannett's internal legal counsel and outside law firms.
· Gannett's two highest ranking news executives personally reviewed every word in The Enquirer's 18-page special section before it was published. "At Watson's request (Gannett Newspaper Division President Gary Watson), Currie (Senior Vice President for News Philip Currie) had done a thorough job of copy-editing every article. He had completely rewritten the lead story in the special section containing the substantive articles, and he provided Beaupre with an outline of his suggested approach to the front-page introductory story." Beaupre "incorporated most" of Watson's and Currie's changes and suggestions.
That would explain why many of the original stories read like they'd been edited by lawyers and/or by committee — they were. But this is the first public indication of exactly how hands-on Gannett officials were with the Chiquita work.
· A month after the series ran, Chiquita presented Gannett with a civil lawsuit it was prepared to file charging everyone involved — Gannett; The Enquirer; its publisher, Harry Whipple; and Beaupre, Wells, Gallagher and McWhirter — with libel and with illegally obtaining internal company voice mails. Chiquita also offered "electronic evidence that Gallagher had dialed into Chiquita's voice mail system on a number of occasions."
This is the first time I can remember that Chiquita is said to have been pursuing libel charges against The Enquirer. Most of the coverage of this mess has focused on how the paper — specifically its lead reporter, Gallagher — screwed up on the voice mails but how the stories about Chiquita basically rang true. Evidently, Chiquita officials felt that all parties involved at Gannett and The Enquirer had maliciously and illegally gone out of their way to cast the banana producer in a negative light.
· As a prerequisite to finalizing a settlement with Gannett that would head off legal action, Chiquita demanded that The Enquirer fire Gallagher, which it did. The paper made a huge point of explaining in its front-page apologies that Gallagher had been let go due to his potentially illegal activities in obtaining the voice mails, which was true, but nowhere was it stated that the firing helped keep everyone else involved in the series from being sued.
Beaupre had agreed to a deal that made Gallagher the sole public scapegoat for the Chiquita debacle. When he found out later, as he explains in his lawsuit, that his Gannett bosses basically did the same thing to him, why was he surprised?
· Chiquita wanted the first apology to run in the Sunday Enquirer on June 28, 1998, which meant the settlement agreement had to be executed by 10:30 p.m. the night before in order to finalize the front page for printing. Whipple, Beaupre and McWhirter were at the paper's offices that Saturday night, receiving the agreement via fax from Gannett lawyers in Washington, D.C. But the agreement was sent "in piecemeal fashion," and, due to the printing deadline, Beaupre signed the agreement before reading the entire document or having its full meaning explained to him.
"He believed that his refusal to sign by the settlement deadline would jeopardize his employer's settlement strategy and be viewed as a disloyal act. Unaware of the unwritten side agreement between Gannett and Lindner and Chiquita to remove him as editor of The Enquirer and transfer him outside of the states of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana and of Gannett's decision to make him an official executive scapegoat, Beaupre trusted that when he signed the settlement agreement his employer would perform its implicit promise to protect his career and reputation."
The lawsuit states that Chiquita demanded that McWhirter, like Beaupre, be transferred outside of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. McWhirter, who previously told CityBeat he asked to leave The Enquirer, now works for Gannett's Detroit News.
Chiquita had plans for The Enquirer's editor and two star investigative reporters; in one way or another, its plans came to fruition. That's powerful.
· Led by Senior Vice President and General Counsel Thomas Chapple, a defendant in Beaupre's suit, Gannett conducted an internal investigation of the Chiquita debacle and prepared a written report critical of Beaupre's performance in leading the Chiquita work.
When The Cincinnati Post reported in August 1998 on the results of that internal probe — saying Gallagher received most of the blame but that Beaupre was held accountable, too — Beaupre told Editor & Publisher the Post story was "completely inaccurate ... one of the sloppiest (stories) I've ever seen."
· In September 1998, the Hamilton County grand jury looking into criminal activity surrounding the voice mail thefts formally named Beaupre, Wells, McWhirter and The Enquirer as targets in its investigation. Gallagher, working out a plea bargain with Special Prosecutor Perry Ancona, was preparing to testify that Gannett lawyers "had been aware of his conduct and had orchestrated a cover-up." All hell was about to break loose.
Gannett officials "engaged in intensive parallel negotiations with Lindner and the special prosecutor to have the investigation closed." There was one sticking point — that Gannett fulfill its earlier "unwritten side agreement" to remove Beaupre as editor and transfer him out of the area. "Until this was done, Lindner and Chiquita, in their capacities as crime victims under Ohio law, would not inform the special prosecutor that they would be satisfied to have the investigation closed."
After struggling with the perception of "criminal wrongdoing" his leaving would demonstrate, Beaupre agreed to be transferred to Gannett headquarters. No charges were ever filed against anyone at Gannett or The Enquirer, other than Gallagher.
The important point here is how fragile "guilt" and "complicity" are in our legal system. One moment, a grand jury of county citizens is ready to charge Enquirer staffers and possibly Gannett officials with crimes; the next moment, Beaupre is run out of town and — poof! — no one else is accused of anything.
· In an unusually emotional paragraph describing Beaupre's feelings upon being transferred to Gannett headquarters, the lawsuit says, "His reputation had already been battered by ill-informed media criticism, which Gannett had not answered or permitted him to answer. He was concerned about the effects of relocation and more adverse publicity on his wife and children."
Ill-informed media criticism? Well, considering this column was the only local media outlet providing any critical take on the situation, I resemble that remark, Mr. Beaupre! But, as he states, neither Beaupre nor anyone at Gannett or The Enquirer would speak on the record about anything — what's a media critic to do, ignore the story?
The lawsuit opens a lot more questions: If Chiquita and Gannett had an "unwritten side agreement" to move Beaupre out of Cincinnati, how can Beaupre prove that? When and how did Beaupre discover he'd been sold out by his bosses? What does his lawsuit's $15 million figure represent?
When I sought those answers from Beaupre at his Cincinnati residence, I was referred to his Washington lawyer, Seymour, who didn't return my phone calls. Onward, ill-informed media criticism! More next week.