Lawyered to Death

Belo pays Peavy, and Riggs cries foul. Who won? The lawyers, of course.

I am confused. I don't know what to write. I have no strong opinions. Every steadfast and firm conviction I had has been turned into tapioca. This is what happens when you talk to too many lawyers.

Not that lawyers are bad people. In reporting this column about how Dan Peavy's wiretapping lawsuit against Belo Corp. and Robert Riggs was settled last week for $5 million, I had to talk to numerous law dudes, on and off the record, and they were all helpful and intelligent. Some had clients in this case, some didn't. They all had strong opinions about who was and wasn't to blame, about how a man with Peavy's fuzzy reputation could best a corporate giant like Belo and how a great reporter like Riggs could get caught up in this tar pit. They explained their positions patiently, compensating for my extra stupidness.

But they are lawyers. They are nice smart family men, but they practice law, which makes them dabblers in the black arts of our times. They are not evil, but what they do is evil. Anyone who bills you by the quarter-hour is in league with Satan. They talked about technicalities and moot points and how to split hairs that have already been split twice. They contradicted each other and cast blame even as they said no blame should be cast.

That's what happens when you deal with the Prince of Darkness' minions. It's why and how this whole nasty Riggs-Belo mess began innocently and ended in professional carnage. It was nobody's and everybody's fault, to hear the lawyers tell it. But one thing is clear: As soon as lawyers got involved, ugliness ensued. And when things get ugly, Belo resorts to its tried-and-true plantation mentality. Belo ensured that the only tangible outcome to this suit, besides that Peavy will be big-pimpin' with his settlement coin, is that the depressed folks at once-mighty Channel 8 feel betrayed by management.

Once again, a recap of the agreed-upon facts, boiled down for easy consumption: In 1994, then-Dallas school board member Peavy had his cordless phone conversations intercepted and taped by a neighbor, who called Channel 8 and said, "Hey, wanna hear these juicy recordings?" Riggs went to the neighbor and said, 'No duh, but please tape all the conversations and not just part of 'em.' This was bad form on his part, because, unbeknownst to him, the wiretapping law had just been changed to make such interceptions of cordless phone conversations illegal. Riggs' instructions made him somewhat of an accomplice in this activity.

It was also unbeknownst to Paul Watler, one of the lawyers who advises Belo on media law. Watler told Channel 8 they could use the tapes and air them. Riggs later found out this wasn't true and made this known. Riggs says now that he was told to shut his little reporter pie hole. "They said, 'Robert, we're the lawyers,'" Riggs says. "'We know what we're doing.'"

'Cept they didn't. Watler, in March 1995, told Belo, 'Oops, my bad, guess what, it is illegal to tape this stuff.' So they returned the tapes, and Riggs broadcast a bunch of stories using other sources that basically said Peavy is not a super-great person.

Then a whole bunch of stuff happened that people disagree about, involving a letter from the U.S. Attorney's Office regarding criminal liability on Riggs' part, involving something called a "tolling agreement" that seemed to allow Belo, but not Riggs, to sue Watler's law firm even after the statute of limitations had expired...and so on. The bottom line is that Riggs became more convinced that Belo was not acting in his best interests. Belo became convinced Riggs was going to be a pain in its ass. Both were right.

Meanwhile, Peavy was tried on some of the allegations Riggs presented in his story, was found not guilty and then sued Belo and Riggs under wiretapping statutes. (Also meanwhile, Riggs won a slew of highfalutin awards for his series.) Last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that Peavy got screwed and that Belo and Riggs were to blame. Before that decision could be appealed, Belo settled for $5 million, which was paid to Peavy and a few other parties in the suit. Riggs refused to settle, so Peavy released him from the suit.

Cut and dried, no? I don't know. I don't pretend to be a lawyer. Seems like Peavy had a good case, or Belo wouldn't have settled for $5 mil. Seems like Riggs shouldn't have told the guy how to record stuff. Ignorance of the law doesn't help me when I claim it, and it seems like it shouldn't help Riggs. And even though Peavy's case didn't turn on this point, it seems like Watler and his co-workers should have done their job right the first time and told Belo/Riggs that what they were doing was possibly illegal. Seems like that's why you pay law firms a buttload of money--so they don't goof up. Then again, at least one federal judge agreed with Watler that the First Amendment trumped everything. So who knows?

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