Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Star Witness In State Supreme Court Justice's "False Light" Suit Against The Philadelphia Inquirer: Inky Publisher Bob Hall

Inquirer Publisher Robert J. Hall
By Ralph Cipriano

State Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery and his wife, Lise Rapaport, have filed a lawsuit against The Philadelphia Inquirer, claiming that a series of articles on referral fees paid to Rapaport portrayed the justice and his wife in a false light, and also defamed them.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court by Dion G. Rassias of The Beasley Firm, the sponsor of this blog, is unusual because it quotes as the star witness against the defendants Robert J. "Bob" Hall, publisher of the Inquirer.

The lawsuit pans the first article in question, published on on March 4, 2013, as "heinous, untrue and savage in its portrayal of the Plaintiffs." The article was so bad," Rassias writes, "that even the publisher of the newspaper, Robert J. Hall, had to admit under oath that he was so appalled by the story, and the lengths The Inquirer had gone to in order to 'make Justice McCaffery and his wife look bad,' he called [Inquirer Editor William K.] Marimow ... and expressed deep concern over the placement of the article."

The Inquirer publisher "specifically told Defendant Marimow that such a piece 'should not have been on page one,'" Rassias wrote. Hall also told Marimow the story was "seriously flawed because it implied McCaffery and his wife Lise Rapaport had done something wrong."

"That admission is as important as it is historic," Rassias writes. "The Inquirer's publisher told the Inquirer's editor that the story involving a Justice on the Supreme Court was 'seriously flawed' and not worthy of front-page coverage."

Hall's testimony under oath about the McCaffery story spilled out on Nov. 15, 2013, during a battle in Common Pleas Court over the firing of Inky editor Marimow that pitted one Inky ownership faction against another.

Marimow, accused by Rassias of running a "smear campaign" against McCaffery and his wife, could not be reached for comment. However, the editor wrote Joel Mathis of Philly mag in an email, "The Inquirer's stories were accurate, thorough and fair and examined an important issue in the administration of justice in Philadelphia."

The McCaffery suit names as defendants the Inquirer, and two parent companies -- Intertrust GCN of Wilmington, and Interstate General Media of Philadelphia. Other named defendants include Inquirer Editor Marimow and Inky reporter Craig McCoy. The Daily News is also named as a defendant because it published a "completely false and disgraceful" cartoon that depicted McCaffery and his wife in bed, with Rapaport holding up two bags of money. Other defendants include Daily News Editor Michael Days and Daily News cartoonist Signe Wilkinson.

McCaffery's 42-page legal complaint begins with a quote from Mark Twain: "People who don't read the newspaper are uninformed; people who do are misinformed."

The Twain quote is followed up by this editorial comment: "Philadelphia is unfortunately a one-horse media town because both major daily newspapers are owned by the same entities; that means the Defendants can write whatever they want to, and their publications can only be held in check by the legal system," Rassias wrote. "This case is all about media accountability for publishing smear pieces."

In the first story in question, published on March 4, 2013, Craig McCoy of the Inquirer wrote that Rapaport, McCaffery's chief judicial aide, received 18 referral fees over a decade for connecting law firms with clients; the most recent referral fee of which was $821,000.

"As the fees haves come in, McCaffery has ruled on 11 Supreme Court cases in which some of the firms tied to the fees were participants," the Inquirer story said. "In eight of those 11 appeals, McCaffery voted in favor of the legal position advanced by the firms that had received referrals from Rapaport in other cases."

What the Inquirer didn't say, according to the McCaffery lawsuit, was that referral fees among lawyers "are proper and extremely common throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Rassias writes.

When she made that referral in 2007 that resulted in the payment of $821,000 in 2012, Rapaport was "not employed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in any capacity," Rassias writes. Rapaport had "no tie to the [state] Supreme Court" when she made the referral, Rassias writes. "The Inquirer deliberately omits this crucial fact."

The Inky also failed to report that the lawyer and law firm who paid the $821,000 referral fee to Rapaport "never appeared before Justice McCafffery in any of his capacities as a judge or justice" in the state, Rassias writes. The article falsely implies that the lawyers who gave Rapaport the $821,000 were getting "favorable treatment from" McCaffery, the complaint charges.

The fact that Rapaport was not working for the court system when she made the referral that led to the $821,000 fee was disclosed in an "amplification" printed on page A-4 of the Sunday March 24, 2013 Inquirer.

"In a story March 4 concerning referral fees received by the wife of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, The Inquirer reported that the wife, Lise Rapaport, had worked as a judicial aide since 1997. The newspaper has since learned that Rapaport was on leave from Jan. 15 to Dec. 17, 2007, and received no pay or benefits from the court during that period, according to court officials ..."

Rapaport's 2007 leave was disclosed in court documents and was known to the defendants, Rassias writes. But the leave wasn't included in the original article because it "would have completely taken the malicious sting out of the $821,000 sensational lighting-rod headline" that painted "the wholly inaccurate picture of Plaintiff McCaffery ruling in favor of this firms who have paid referral fees to Plaintiff Rapaport."

The amplification on A-4 was upstaged by an article on the same page about Punxsutawney Phil's "bum forecast."

"The Inquirer Defendants highlighted that their coverage of a rodent's ability to predict the weather was more important than clarifying their earlier front-page attack upon a Supreme Court Justice and his wife," Rassias writes.

The Inquirer story claimed that McCaffery "never disclosed the fees," Rassias writes. "This is a blatant lie and the Defendants knew this ... In fact, if Plaintiff McCaffery had never disclosed the fees, Defendants would never have known about the referrals in the first place."

Actually, the original Inquirer story reported that the referral fees to his wife were disclosed by McCaffery on state-mandated financial disclosure forms. The Inquirer story, however, also quoted experts on legal ethics who questioned whether McCaffery should have disclosed those referral fees from the bench, or recused himself in cases involving the firms that made the referral fees.

The McCaffery complaint claimed the newspaper "refused to identify" the 11 cases mentioned in the article "until recently compelled to do so by this lawsuit," Rassias writes. The Inquirer didn't tell the reader that state Supreme Court cases are decided by a majority vote of justices, and not by McCaffery ruling alone, Rassias writes.

The disclosure of the true facts about the Supreme Court votes involving the 11 cases cited by the Inquirer will show that "Justice McCaffery's votes did not provide 'help' to the lawyers or firms who had paid referral fees, as The Inquirer suggests," Rassias writes. Publishing those facts would have "clearly established that what The Inquirer spewed in its March publication were nothing but half-truths and false-light."

The Inquirer subsequently reported on June 11, 2013 that the FBI was investigating McCaffery over the payments made to his wife. On Aug. 19, 2013, the newspaper reported that the FBI had served subpoenas on numerous law firms, seeking information on the referrals paid to Rapaport.

Despite the newspaper's ongoing crusade, "The Inquirer still has not published or produced one shred of evidence that Plaintiff McCaffery violated any law or in any way acted unethically," Rassias writes in bold type. "Indeed, it bears repeating: Plaintiff McCaffery has done nothing wrong, illegal or unethical."

"The Defendants, seeking to boost sagging readership and interest, published this article knowing they were placing the Plaintiffs in a false light, falsely accusing them of illegal and unethical behavior, and falsely reporting the true nature of Plaintiff Rapaport's referral fees and Plaintiff McCaffery's role as a Justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," Rassias writes. "The article was intentionally false, misleading and deliberately incomplete."

In the complaint against the Inquirer, Inky Publisher Bob Hall gets star billing.

"Remarkably, publisher Robert Hall was so concerned over the placement of this article that was maliciously designed to 'make Justice McCaffery and his wife look bad' that he even sent a follow-up email to Defendant Marimow on March 4, 2013, exclaiming how 'disappointed' he was with the story and how 'distressed' he was that it was put on the front page of the Sunday paper," Rassias writes.

In a footnote, Rassias writes that the existence of the "crucial March 4, 2013 email" from Hall to Marimnow was "actually disclosed by the law firm of Sprague & Sprague -- who ironically represent a defendant here -- during a hearing before the Honorable Patricia A. McInerney that occurred on Nov. 15, 2013."

"In that hearing," Rassias writes, "attorneys Richard Sprague and Joseph Podraza made an offer of proof to Judge McInerney indicating they wanted to question Mr. Hall about the critical March 4, 2013 email. The Plaintiffs have already demanded that Sprague & Sprague preserve it and will present it to the Court as soon as it is produced ..."

"Obviously, The Inquirer took all necessary steps to sanitize that internal 'dirt' from the general public and never disclosed, in any of its articles, its own publisher's deep concerns about the coverage of the Plaintiffs," Rassias writes.

Sprague represents Intertrust GCN of Wilmington, owned by Lewis Katz, one of the parent companies of the Inquirer. Sprague has already served notice that he will be defending Intertrust against the McCaffery lawsuit.

Sprague did not respond to an email request for comment.

The McCaffery complaint takes several shots at Inquirer Editor Marimow.

"Defendant Marimow compromised his responsibilities and journalistic ethics in order to attack Plaintiffs, and became completely unmoved by and unmoored from the truth," Rassias wrote. "He did so in furtherance of the several agendas of his friends and his personal counsel, whose interests and motivations were completely adverse to Plaintiff McCaffery."

Marimow is represented by attorney Bill Chadwick, who also represents Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, McCaffery's arch enemy. Chadwick could not be reached for comment.

"As such, Editor-in-Chief Marimow transformed himself into the 'Enabler-in-Chief" of the entire smear campaign, fueled in part by his strong business and personal relationships referenced above and motivated by these and other factors and relationships that will be probed and more fully disclosed, in far greater detail, throughout the discovery process," Rassias writes.

The Daily News cartoon mentioned in the complaint shows McCaffery and Rapaport in bed.

McCaffery is wearing his judicial robes and holding a gavel. Rapaport, referred to in the headline as "Mrs. McCaffery," is blindfolded like Lady Justice. But sitting in the scales she's holding up are two bags of money. Underneath the bed, there's an unopened book on ethics.

In the cartoon, McCaffery asks his wife, "Bring home any fees from your separate and perfectly legal business, hon?"