By: David Noack
Ex-reporter reveals source for Chiquita voice mails and says editors told him to trash evidence
When ex-Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Mike Gallagher first learned that gaining access to Chiquita Brands International’s voice mails might be illegal, he says he got approval from top editors to destroy materials that could be subpoenaed by the company.
In addition, Gallagher also disclosed the identity of one of his confidential sources ? a serious journalistic breach ? for the now-discredited series about questionable business practices involving the world’s largest banana producer that ran last year.
The revelations came as Gallagher testified at a pretrial hearing in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court last week in the case of former Chiquita lawyer George Ventura, who Gallagher says provided him with access codes to the company’s voice-mail system.
Ventura, who was based in South America, was indicted last year on 10 counts of helping Gallagher gain illegal access to the company’s voice mail. He is scheduled to go on trial later this month. Gallagher, 40, pled guilty last year to illegally intercepting the company’s voice mails. In a plea agreement with prosecutors, Gallagher agreed to testify at Ventura’s trial in exchange for not going to prison. He is slated to be placed on probation.
Before naming Ventura as one of his key sources for the stories, Gallagher had saidprotecting a confidential source was one of the greatest responsibilities of reporters.
Former Enquirer editor Lawrence Beaupre, who oversaw the investigative project, blasts Gallagher over his court testimony. “Mike Gallagher is an admitted liar and felon, and anything he says should be judged on that basis,” asserts Beaupre, who is now an executive with the Gannett Co. in Arlington, Va.
In the final days before publication, Gallagher testified, the Enquirer braced for a possible civil lawsuit from Chiquita. To protect sources, Gallagher said that with the OK of the Enquirer’s top editors and lawyers, he destroyed tapes, notes, and other documents that could have been subpoenaed by Chiquita
In June, the Gannett-owned Cincinnati paper agreed to pay the world’s largest banana distributor $10 million in damages for “untrue” articles alleging the company had questionable business practices. The newspaper also ran an apology to the company on its front page for three consecutive days.
Gallagher’s admission of destroying documents, notes, and tapes was the first public explanation on how the series veered from normal journalistic practices. Media ethics observers say Gallagher’s decision to reveal the name of a confidential source must be viewed in the context surrounding the entire Chiquita controversy.
Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the decision to name a source will not have any long-term effect.
“It is unusual, based on the peculiar facts. Most reporters aren’t generally in the position to be asked to breach confidence in return for a plea agreement. For that reason, I think the fallout will be minimal. I don’t see it as establishing any legal precedent. Having said that, though, I am always troubled to see a journalist give up a source,” says Kirtley.
Also testifying at the pre-trial hearing was ex-Enquirer reporter Cameron McWhirter, who also worked on the controversial series.
Now at the Detroit Free Press, McWhirter differed in some key areas with Gallagher, especially on the point of when Gallagher learned that the way in which he got access to Chiquita’s confidential voice mails might be illegal.
Gallagher claims Enquirer lawyers took almost two months to say the voice mail access was illegal, while McWhirter said they were told within 48 hours.
In his testimony, McWhirter said that on a Saturday in October 1997, a source gave him a Chiquita voice-mail access code. When he told Gallagher, he said, Gallagher said another source had promised to provide tape recordings of the banana giant’s voice mail.
On the following Monday, Gallagher told McWhirter, Beaupre, and Enquirer local news editor David Wells that, over the weekend, he had accessed the company’s voice-mail system three times to verify information he was getting from a source inside the company, McWhirter testified.
Gallagher’s disclosure prompted a round of legal discussions to which McWhirter was not a participant, testified McWhirter. He said, however, the legal advice from lawyers was not to do it again. McWhirter said the message was that Gallagher was never to access the voice-mail system again and that the lawyers advised Gallagher to destroy his copies of the voice-mail codes.
Gallagher maintains there was a two- to three-week delay in obtaining a legal opinion because top Enquirer editors were on vacation or unavailable. When he finally told Beaupre and Wells that he had accessed the voice mail, they checked with company lawyers, who, finding no Ohio law dealing with the issue, initially concluded there “was nothing wrong” with his actions, Gallagher testified. Two to three weeks later, however, the attorneys learned that federal law made using the voice mail a misdemeanor, Gallagher said. By that point, Gallagher said he had already accessed the voice- mail system 15 to 20 times. Even after the warning, Gallagher admitted that he continued to access Chiquita’s voice mails.
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