By: C.G. Wallace, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Salt Lake Tribune said Tuesday that it fired two reporters who were paid $20,000 for collaborating with the National Enquirer on an Elizabeth Smart story because they misled their employer about the level of their involvement with the tabloid.
Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera were fired less than a week after Tribune Editor James E. Shelledy refused their resignations.
While the reporters told Shelledy they had given the tabloid a “roadmap” of the investigation, Shelledy said he had since learned they provided a much larger part of the story.
“I feel saddened and angry that these two reporters damaged themselves, their colleagues, and the reputation of the Tribune with their conduct,” he said.
“The reporters told us a different story than we found out later to be true so they were terminated,” said Tribune Publisher William Dean Singleton, who also is vice chairman and CEO of the newspaper’s owner, MediaNews Group Inc.
A message left by The Associated Press at Cantera’s home was not immediately returned. Vigh’s home telephone had been disconnected when the AP called.
Shelledy had said Monday that Vigh and Cantera split $20,000 for their help on a July 2 Enquirer story headlined “Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring.” The story has been retracted as part of a settlement between the Smart family and the tabloid.
Vigh and Cantera, the lead reporters on the Smart kidnapping, didn’t tell Shelledy of their dealings with the Enquirer until last week, when they offered to resign. He refused their resignations, but put them on a year’s probation and forbade them from doing any freelance work. The two also were pulled off coverage of the Smart case.
The tabloid article was published about a month after Elizabeth, then 14, was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom. She was found March 12 in a Salt Lake suburb with two people now charged with kidnapping her.
Shelledy wrote about his reporters’ involvement with the Florida-based Enquirer in his weekly column Sunday. In the column, he said Vigh and Cantera relayed rumors and “assumed the Enquirer played by mainstream rules and would consider as hearsay that which could not be confirmed, on or off the record, through police sources.”
On Monday, the Enquirer sent a letter to the Tribune demanding a retraction for the column, saying Shelledy misrepresented how the tabloid got the story and wrongly implied the Tribune reporters had merely provided unsubstantiated rumors.
Alan Butterfield, the Enquirer reporter who brokered the deal with Vigh and Cantera, played the AP two very brief portions of a telephone conversation with Cantera taped without the reporter’s knowledge the day after the three agreed to work together.
In one of the snippets, Butterfield is heard asking Cantera to make sure the Tribune did not scoop the Enquirer on the Smart details. Cantera responded by saying he would push for the Tribune to publish the story, but that the newspaper probably would reject it. “My editors are a different story. They’re real lightweights sometimes,” he said.
In the other taped snippet, Butterfield asked, “Everything you told me last night, you’re solid on?”
“Oh yeah,” Cantera answered.
Shelledy said he decided to fire the reporters after he was told about the tape by the Enquirer and confronted Cantera. “He said that he probably hadn’t come clean on everything,” Shelledy said.
Vigh was fired “because he could not guarantee us that his recollection of what transpired with the Enquirer reporter is the same as he said was true last week,” the editor said.
Vigh, 32, has been a police and courts reporter for the Tribune since 1998; Cantera, 34, had been a police reporter at the paper since 2000.
Cantera and Vigh were quoted Tuesday by the Tribune as saying they planned to give the $20,000 payment to charity, even though they no longer have it in hand.
“At some point, I would like to give it to the Center for Missing (and Exploited) Children,” Cantera told the newspaper. “But I haven’t done that yet, so I guess it sounds pretty lame to say it.”
Ed Smart, Elizabeth’s father, told the AP that the family had no intention of getting the reporters fired, but rather just wanted to protect Elizabeth.
“We just feel that it’s important for the people to act responsibly,” he said.