By: David Noack
Sheriff’s deputies seize 29 videocassettes; female employees walk out
Tipped off by an anonymous source, sheriff’s deputies in Franklin County, Fla., last week seized a video camera concealed in the ceiling of the Apalachicola Times’ unisex bathroom and 29 videotape cassettes.
John Fred Lee, general manager of the 1,150-circulation newspaper located on the state’s northwest Gulf Coast, said the camera was part of a larger video surveillance network installed as an anti-theft measure.
Sheriff’s Lt. Michael Moore said three to four cameras were positioned inside the newspaper’s offices ? all transmitting to a monitor and recorder in Lee’s office. Controls at the monitor allowed a viewer to switch among the different cameras to see various building locations. One of the cameras was hidden in the bathroom, directly above the toilet used by male and female employees.
Moore said the bathroom camera was “camouflaged in such a way that if you did not know what you were looking at, you would not know what it was.”
He said he received a tip about the situation on Feb. 23. After inspecting the bathroom, Moore said, he contacted the State Attorney’s office to request a search warrant.
Shortly after sheriff’s officers completed their search of the newspaper’s offices, seized equipment and announced an ongoing investigation of Lee, five female employees walked off their jobs. They included a Times reporter, an ad saleswoman, the bookkeeper, a receptionist and the production manager. Some of the former employees are reported to be meeting with an attorney to explore a possible civil lawsuit.
It was not known if the videocassettes contained images recorded from the bathroom camera. Moore said his office expected to complete a review of all the tapes as early as today.
“Right now we are in the preliminary phase of the investigation. The first step was to secure the search warrant, get what we felt was evidence in that criminal case. We are reviewing the tapes,” said Moore.
State Attorney Ron Flury said no charges, if any, will be filed until the investigation is completed.
“There are a number of videotapes and witnesses that need to be interviewed. The tapes need to be reviewed and I’m not going to piece-meal this together. I’m not going to make a determination until all that’s completed,” said Flury.
Lee, the general manager, who also owns the two-story Market Street building that houses the newspaper’s offices, said only, “The sheriff’s department has an investigation, and as soon as they complete it, I’m sure we’ll have a comment.” He declined to take other questions.
The Apalachicola Times quoted Lee as disputing the sheriff’s deputy’s account that the cameras were operational.
“One was installed at the rear of the building near the computer server and another was put into the room planned to be a combination bathroom/darkroom. These cameras were used in conjunction with an alarm system, but never while authorized employees were in the building. I immediately told the search team that we had three or four cameras including one in the bathroom, although it was not turned on. I offered them my assistance, and even cut one of the cables so they wouldn’t have to pull it through the wall,” Lee is quoted as saying.
The newspaper is owned by David and Robert Lindsay of Sarasota, Fla., who reportedly flew in for a brief visit. They also own the nearby Carrabelle Times.
Attorney Barbara Sanders, who represents the Lindsays, said she is waiting to see the results of the investigation. She said the owners were aware that a video security system had been installed, but she was unsure if they knew the exact locations of the cameras.
Sanders also said it was unclear whether the employees who left the newspaper had forfeited their jobs.
?(The Apalachicola Times covered the story about the seizure on the front page of its latest print edition but not on its Web site. ) [Photo & Caption]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 14, 1998)