By John M. Wylie II, Editor
(Here is a link to the lawsuit documents: petition-steidley)
Saying the Claremore Daily Progress views newspaper publishing as “a license to defame with impunity,” District Attorney Janice Steidley and two assistants have sued the paper for libel.
Steidley, civil assistant district attorney David Iski and assistant district attorney Sean McConnell are seeking over $10,000 in actual damages and at least $500,000 in punitive damages.
Prominent Tulsa attorney Joel Wohlgemuth filed the lawsuit Thursday in Rogers County District Court against Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., which owns the Progress, as well as publisher Bailey Dabney, managing editor Randy Cowling and reporter Salesha Wilken.
The lawsuit contends the newspaper has regularly published “misleading and false” news stories which “attributed criminal conduct” to Steidley, Iski and/or McConnell.
“(D)efendants refused to retract, following demand by plaintiffs, any of their false publications. Accordingly, the action for libel per se is proper and necessary to remedy the harm caused to plaintiffs and to prevent further unprincipled activities under the guise of journalism,” the lawsuit contends.
Dabney, in a statement published on the newspaper’s website today (Friday), said, “This is an effort to muzzle our right to report on and opine on public issues important to our readers. We will vigorously defend that right.”
Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association (OPA), said in the Progress story that when public officials strike out legally against newspapers doing their job, it should raise red flags with the public.
“The role of a newspaper is to speak truth to power and to bark when they see or hear something alarming,” Thomas added.
CNHI has 20 newspapers in Oklahoma including 11 dailies, the largest holdings by number of papers owned it has in the nation, according to its website.
Those newspapers make up 10.5 percent of OPA’s membership and a CNHI employee holds one of seven director seats and one of five committee chairmanships.
Since the lawsuit was only filed Thursday, the Progress and its employees will have additional time to prepare a more detailed response to file with the court.
The lawsuit says the Progress is simply “an Oklahoma trade name” for CNHI, which it identifies as a Delaware corporation headquartered in Montgomery, Ala. It contends the corporation has failed to register with the state of Oklahoma to do business here, although such registration is required by state law.
It says that the plaintiffs have 46 years of combined experience as licensed attorneys in Oklahoma while Wilken, the reporter who wrote the stories, “had no experience and training in journalism, let alone in the criminal justice system.
“(T)he CDP (Progress) has not provided any formal training to this inexperienced reporter. Nor have the defendants adequately supervised Ms. Wilken’s actions as a reporter.”
Wilken joined the newspaper’s staff in approximately August 2011 after working for a school system and an oil company, the lawsuit says.
It cites four examples of what it calls “regularly published articles authored and/or edited and approved by defendants Wilken, Cowling and others, which specifically relate to the conduct of plaintiffs.” The work was done “under the direction” of Dabney and “falsely attributed criminal misconduct to plaintiffs.”
Specifically it cites:
• An Aug. 19 editorial by Cowling called “Secrecy and a Shadow Commissioner” which claimed Iski was “(p)ulling the strings of county government.” It essentially defined Iski as “a law-breaking puppeteer.” The editorial related to the hiring of a public information officer using funds designated for road and bridge maintenance and also “represented that Mr. Iski intentionally withheld information from the public without justification.
“The foregoing statements were made with reckless disregard for the truth” and falsely accused Iski of violating “multiple criminal laws.”
• A Nov. 15 editorial by Cowling called “Caught and Warned: Will Thacker and Helm Continue Their Misdeeds” said in part, “Iski, who is supposed to uphold state statutes, has been allowing them [Rogers County Commissioners Kirt Thacker and Mike Helm] to break the law time and time again.”
The lawsuit says, “The foregoing statements were made with reckless disregard for the truth, and the conduct attributed to Mr. Iski would be a violation of criminal laws.”
• A Feb. 10 article by Wilken called “Steidley Faces Law Enforcement Backlash” included statements that accuse Steidley of unlawfully abusing her power and position as District Attorney to intimidate law enforcement officers from performing their duties, the lawsuit contends.
It says the statements were made “with reckless disregard for the truth” and depict Steidley as violating criminal laws.
• A Feb. 19 Wilken article, “Rape Victim’s Mother Angry With DA,” includes “an erroneous allegation that Assistant District Attorney McConnell lied to the Rogers County District Court at a judicial hearing,” the lawsuit says.
Prior to publication, McConnell said he told Wilken that a court transcript showing he spoke truthfully in court was available but she “inexplicably failed” to read it. That caused the newspaper to publish, “with reckless disregard for the truth, the factually baseless and utterly false charge that plaintiff Sean McConnell ‘lied’ to the court.
“This publication impuned (sic) the reputation of Mr. McConnell by accusing him of obstructing justice in the District Court of Rogers County, a violation of Oklahoma criminal law,” the suit adds.
It contends the newspaper and the writers and editors involved falsely accused Steidley and/or her assistants of violating state criminal laws which include obstruction of a public officer, willful neglect of duty, willful omission to perform duty, misleading the court and conspiracy.
Attached to the lawsuit is a March 18 letter in which Wohlgemuth, on behalf of the plaintiffs, “notified defendants, in writing, of the false and libelous nature of the articles and made a demand for retraction.”
The four-page letter accuses the newspaper of a “persistent and pervasive pattern of gross and malicious misconduct, reckless disregard of the truth of information disseminated to the public at large, and the gross failure to report information with universally accepted and fundamental professional and ethical practices.”
It reiterates the points made in the body of the lawsuit and also warns the newspaper and its staff, affiliates and representatives to “immediately cease and desist your ongoing pattern and practice of defamatory attacks on or about our clients, both as individuals and in their official capacities as State attorneys.
“The lack of professionalism and related defamatory statements is consistent with the fact that Salesha Wilken has no journalistic training, education or other legitimate credentials.
“Moreover, CDP has plainly failed to confirm the ‘accuracy’ of her reporting, inform her of the defamation laws of Oklahoma and/or performed any kind of due diligence in connection with the articles she has written.”
The letter also warns the Progress to “abstain from further defaming Ms. Steidley and the members of her office.”
It advises the newspaper to retain all relevant files, documents, emails, recordings “or other tangible things” related to matters covered by the case that the newspaper has or may obtain.
“Any attempt at destroying evidence relating to these matters is subject to criminal penalty under Oklahoma law,” it adds.
The letter set a deadline of 5 p.m. Saturday, March 23 to issue the retraction.
“Defendants did not retract the articles,” the suit says. “Instead, Mr. Dabney defiantly prepared a letter dated March 19, 2013, which established, on its face, that defendants had failed to perform due diligence prior to publication, and had acted with reckless disregard for the truth.”
The Dabney letter was not filed as part of the lawsuit.
In describing the damages Steidley, Iski and McConnell are seeking, the lawsuit says that the “false statements were made in bad faith, with malice, and with the specific intent of harming plaintiffs’ careers and reputations … and tended to deprive plaintiffs of public confidence.”
It seeks actual damages to be calculated at trial but which will be more than $10,000, and punitive damages that will be the higher of $500,000 or twice the amount of actual damages.
It also seeks recovery of legal fees and other costs as well as pre-judgment and post-judgment interest.
The case has been assigned to District Judge Dynda Post.
[Editor’s note: John and Faith Wylie, owners of the Leader, have business relationships with all parties in this case. The newspaper is printed through the Claremore Progress on presses at the Muskogee Phoenix, another CNHI newspaper. Faith Wylie designs ads that run in the Leader and the Progress. All three newspapers are members of the Oklahoma Press Association. Wylie Communications, Inc., the advertising and consulting business owned by the Wylies, handled media aspects of Janice Steidley’s campaign and has since served as a consultant on public information issues to the District Attorney’s office for the 12th District and to her individually. Their son was an intern at the Norman Wohlgemuth law firm in 2006.]