Reasons For Firings Debated p.12

By: STACY JONES WHEN A SOURCE filed an aggravated harassment charge against reporter Teresa Cuda, it was the beginning of the end of her career at the Recorder in Amsterdam, N.Y.
For the newspaper's executives, it was the beginning of a controversy involving the firing of three editorial employees.
Cuda, and executive editor Tony Benjamin were dismissed, they say, because they refused to back down ? as the publisher had asked ? from a loan fraud story involving the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp.
"It had to be more than a coincidence," said Benjamin, a 16-year veteran of the Recorder. "There were a lot of EDC people coming around."
Helene Pelicone, a freelance columnist for the Recorder, was also let go. She said it was because she chastised Barker ? in her column ? over the firing of Benjamin.
After her dismissal, Pelicone wrote to the county Ethics Board suggesting the possibility that a ward city supervisor "conspired with others to offer $200,000 to the Recorder in exchange for firing Benjamin."
The board has yet to officially investigate the charge.
Recorder publisher Richard Barker and Kevin McClary, the paper's general manager and advertising director, deny the accusations, calling them "total fabrication."
"The guy's an executive editor, we should have gotten $500,000," joked McClary about the conspiracy rumors.
Of Pelicone's dismissal, Barker said, "I didn't need to pay someone $25 [per column] to shoot me in the foot."
On the meetings with EDC officials, Barker said, "They had absolutely nothing to do with coverage."
The EDC's "complaints were much more about the way that people were being treated verbally" by Cuda.
Peter Zabo, president of an EDC subsidiary, filed an aggravated harassment charge against Cuda Jan. 16. In the complaint, Zabo alleges that Cuda telephoned him and stated, "I will file a lawsuit against you for slander and consider you liable if I lose my job." Zabo was one of the individuals who met with Barker to discuss Cuda's behavior toward those connected to the EDC.
Cuda's intimidating behavior crossed the line of good journalism, said McClary, adding that she was no longer able to do her job because people would not speak to her.
Zabo's harassment charge was the final straw, he said, and Cuda was fired Jan. 24.
Typically, McClary admits, a newspaper wouldn't hesitate to back its reporter, but in this case, "I believed these people. I wasn't going to jeopardize the company.
"Given what I know about it, I believe she could have done it," said McClary
By her own admission, Cuda said she has always been aggressive on the job. "I was called the barracuda.
"When you are known to be aggressive, you make enemies," she said.
And, Cuda maintains, "I was under pressure not to do these stories."
Her charges were repeated by Benjamin, who was fired Dec. 13. Though he admits no directive from Barker ever ordered him not to pursue the story or limit the amount of stories, the goal was implied, he said.
While Cuda's firing had more to do with manner than with the quality of her work, Benjamin's situation was completely different, said Barker, who stated his problems with Benjamin began not with the EDC story, but when Barker became publisher in 1995.
In Barker's view, downsizing efforts and new editorial goals at the 11,000-circulation newspaper angered Benjamin, who refused to cooperate with his new boss.
Benjamin's dismissal letter from Barker, given after Benjamin missed an employee Christmas party, hints at pasts conflicts.
The letter reads, "Given the recent circumstances and well-documented problems that we have had, this latest snub is not going unrecognized."
Further down, Barker wrote, "You have a choice of commenting to the press about your situation. Or you can leave quietly and salvage your career. I warn you that if you make statements to the press that reflect negatively against this paper, I will freely explain why you were fired. (Please read my last memo.)"
Insubordination and missed deadlines were the reasons Barker gave for Benjamin's firing.
"He missed deadline 26 out of 32 times in November."
"I warned him if he didn't get his act together . . . this is it," said Barker.
Benjamin's boycott of the Christmas party was not the reason for the firing, explained Barker, but "it was one of those final slaps in the face."
Benjamin admitted that deadlines were missed "more times than not due to things beyond the newsroom's control."
Problems included the demands of a new pagination system and "fewer people doing more work" because of cutbacks in editors. Also, the production department kept track of deadlines and their clock was seven minutes faster than the one in the newsroom, said Benjamin.
Along with the accusations of Cuda and Benjamin, come few hard facts. Neither has filed a lawsuit against the paper, though both say they are looking into it.
What the situation boils down to, said McClary, is "a couple of people, their egos were very bruised. They were in positions of power in the community and they abused that power."
For Benjamin, the conflict holds "a lot of disappointment."
"To see former co-workers knuckle under [Barker's] fist is troubling," he said. "If you believe in good journalism, you have to make a stand sometime."


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