Lawyered to Death

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?

What I do know is how this decision is playing at Channel 8: poorly. That's because of something Watler said in a recent deposition in Riggs' lawsuit, which is ongoing. (Oh, yeah: Riggs, who no longer works for Channel 8, is suing Watler's firm, Jenkens & Gilchrist, for malpractice. Long story. Running out of space.) In this deposition (and in a later statement faxed to me), Watler says Riggs doesn't have a claim against Jenkens because he was never a client of the firm. He said that Belo is the client and that even though Riggs himself talked to Watler many times, he took Watler's advice at his own financial and professional risk.

You heard me.

You can see why investigative/aggressive reporters at Channel 8 are concerned. Already, management has tried to muzzle them in various ways. (Like the clause Belo tried to insert in some contracts that said a reporter could be fired if a story he or she did caused harm to an advertiser. You heard me.) Now they have to worry that their lawyer isn't really working for them.

But here's the super-crazy part: Watler is right. To a point.

I talked to media lawyers who aren't part of this lawsuit, and they said, technically, yeah, Riggs or any reporter is only an employee of the true client, in this case Belo. Although one source said that attorney-client privilege is still intact, he said the reporter is not technically a client. Which I think would shock many reporters.

But--big but--they also said that once a lawsuit is filed, Watler is wrong: The reporter immediately becomes a client who is due separate but equal treatment with the primary client, in this case Belo. And they said that although they can't figure out what Riggs' damages are (he says his professional reputation was sullied, among other things), it sounds like he wasn't always given that separate but equal treatment.

See why I'm confused? I'm confused because I'm paid to have strong opinions, but I don't know who is right or wrong anymore. I only know that a guy with a questionable past got lots of money; a great reporter has to fight the company he helped make special way back when; folks at Channel 8 wonder if their company and their lawyers truly have their back; and many lawyers will continue to bill many people much money.

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste