On the morning of April 2, 1992, Plain Dealer reporter Michelle Ruess was frustrated that she had been scooped.
The 33-year-old Washington-bureau reporter had opened her morning paper and noticed the headline "Oakar resigns from investigative panel." She immediately read the accompanying story about Cleveland Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar by Associated Press reporter Katherine Rizzo.
The story explained that Oakar, a powerful eight-term Democrat from Cleveland's West Side, had resigned from a special task force investigating embezzlement and other problems at the private post office used by members of the House of Representatives, known simply as the House post office. Rizzo reported that Oakar left the task force because she was too busy with other committee assignments.
But the story also carried a hint of scandal. Quoting unidentified sources, Rizzo claimed that Oakar was asked to leave the task force because her patronage employees at the House post office were among those being investigated.
The story also caught the eye of Plain Dealer Washington bureau chief Tom Brazaitis, a veteran reporter and bureau chief since 1979. He, too, was intrigued by Rizzo's claims that Oakar was being pushed off the task force. When Ruess checked in, the two discussed the story, and Brazaitis asked Ruess to look deeper into the reported allegations that the probe might be getting close to Oakar's friends.
Ruess would have about eight hours before her filing deadline to come back with something.
Neither Ruess nor Brazaitis could know that their actions that day would become the basis for an $18 million libel suit filed by Oakar against eight Plain Dealer editors and reporters, ranging form Brazaitis all the way to Editorial Page Editor Brent Larkin.
The Plain Dealer vigorously fought the lawsuit for nearly seven years. It came to a conclusion just seven weeks ago, with a quiet announcement in the paper that the case had been settled out of court, just days before it was to go to trial. While the terms of the settlement were not disclosed, word in informed circles in Cleveland is that The Plain Dealer agreed to pay Mary Rose Oakar in excess of $2 million.
The crux of the case came down to whether The Plain Dealer could substantiate the allegations made against Oakar that were reported in Ruess's April 3, 1992, story--which it could not. The Plain Dealer never actually made the allegations, reporting them instead as accusations made by "House sources" who did not want to be identified in print. In the end, the paper's only defense was that it had accurately reported the allegations. But Plain Dealer lawyers were apparently unwilling to test the argument before a jury, electing instead to stay out of court while continuing to stand by their story.
It was an odd posture, to say the least, though it kept The Plain Dealer out of a potentially embarrassing public attempt to explain how and why the paper had chosen to run allegations it could not prove at the time of publication. But what the case did leave in its wake is reams of court documents, among which are thousands of pages of depositions that detail many of the movements and motivations of key players. The depositions are also fascinating in the rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of The Plain Dealer they offer, as well as the interplay of media and politics--particularly in the often-incestuous microcosm of Washington, D.C.
The events of this story were reconstructed primarily from those depositions, along with interviews with several of the principals, including Oakar and her attorney. The Plain Dealer attorneys and reporters involved in the suit declined to be interviewed for this story, the latter citing the paper's policy that prohibits them from talking to other media. Where details differed in testimony, preference was given to the version of the story recounted in the depositions by Ruess, the principal reporter.
A Very Tame Goose
Working on Capitol Hill that day, Ruess managed to track down three sources--all Republican, and all of whom requested to be anonymous in print.
One of the first sources Ruess visited was a male Republican Congressman. She asked him about the allegations that the House post office probe included Oakar's patronage employees and friends. "Was that a wild goose chase?" Ruess asked.
"That's a very tame goose," the Congressman replied, suggesting that this story could be caught.
Ruess then visited the male senior staffer of another Republican House member, a source she had used in previous stories. She asked him the same questions.
Oakar is "part of the problem," he responded.
Ruess contacted a third source--another Republican staffer--who claimed that Oakar left the task force because allegations had surfaced that employees with ties to her were "ghost employees." The term meant that employees on the House post office payroll were receiving a salary without actually working their required hours.
Ruess was sure she was on to something. She went back to her second source, who said that he, too, had heard the "ghost employee" allegation. But he cautioned Ruess that this and other issues were all unproven at this point. Still, he assured Ruess that these were the allegations that forced Oakar's resignation from the committee.
"Not confirmed," Ruess scribbled in her notes. Ruess asked her second source for names of the alleged ghost employees with ties to Oakar. He had none.
By then it was early afternoon. Ruess went to Oakar's office in the Rayburn Building and waited for the Congresswoman in the reception area. When Oakar arrived, she was on her way to the House floor. They spoke a few minutes, and then Ruess accompanied Oakar to the subway in the Rayburn Building. During the walk, Ruess asked Oakar why she left the task force.
"It takes a lot of my time," Oakar responded, noting her other committee assignments and pending reelection campaign. Oakar added that she was frustrated that the task force's work was being leaked to the media, something she had noted to Rizzo the day before.
Ruess asked Oakar about Rizzo's report that the task force was probing her patronage employees. Was it true? she asked.
"Absolutely not true," responded Oakar.
Ruess left without asking Oakar about the specific allegation linking her to two ghost employees.
When Ruess returned to the bureau office in the late afternoon, she met with Brazaitis to brief him on what she had learned, recapping her conversations with the three Republican sources. The most intriguing item was the specific rumor that two ghost employees on the House post office payroll had been linked to Oakar.
Ruess and Brazaitis then discussed the need for a Democratic source to add balance to their reporting and avoid the appearance that this was driven by Republican agenda. (According to Brazaitis's testimony, he wasn't worried about the party affiliation of the sources but did agree to look for more sources.) Reporter Tom Diemer was also tapped to help develop bipartisan corroboration by calling his sources about the allegations made to Ruess.
Finally, Ruess and Brazaitis discussed "using careful language" to avoid drawing conclusions that would go beyond what the sources had told them. "We wanted to stay very close to what our sources told us and not go one iota further," Ruess later testified under oath.
As Ruess wrote, Brazaitis and Diemer worked the phones. When Ruess completed her version of the story, Brazaitis reviewed it and inserted a quote from a Democratic Congressman, who would become the sole Democrat voice in the story. Like the Republicans, this source did not want to be quoted by name. Diemer had contacted five sources, none of whom could confirm the truth of the allegations.
The story was then sent via modem to The Plain Dealer, where it was reviewed by an editor in charge of national news. It was, by any measure, a devastating piece, accusing a major political figure of being suspected of illegal activity. In spite of that, no questions were raised.
The story ran unchanged.
The next morning, April 3, the paper's 400,000 weekday readers were greeted by the page-one headline: "Oakar forced from probe." Below it, a smaller headline elaborated: "House post office 'ghost' employees alleged." Beside the subhead was a picture of Oakar and a quote, in large type, from Brazaitis's Democratic source: "She did not voluntarily leave this committee. They are getting real close to her and her kin."
Despite the denial Oakar had given Ruess, the first paragraph of the article read: "Accusations of improper or unlawful activity by patronage employees of Rep. Mary Rose Oakar prompted her resignation from a task force investigating wrongdoing at the House post office, sources said yesterday."
As people in Cleveland were reading their paper, Oakar was driving to Cleveland from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where she had stayed the night before with relatives. She was coming home to officially announce her reelection bid. When she reached her doorstep and opened the paper, she was not prepared for what appeared on the front page.
"I was in total disbelief," she recalls. "Based on my conversation with Ruess the day before, I could not believe this is the story they came up with."
If the headline was not bad enough, she was even more shocked by the charge that she was pressured to leave the task force when allegations arose that she "had placed two 'ghost employees' on the House post office payroll." Ruess had not even asked her about ghost employees.
Filing her petition for reelection at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Oakar was surrounded by union officials and other supporters. Before a small crowd of reporters, Oakar used the opportunity to attack the story, calling the allegations "a bald-faced, damnable lie."
"I've got news for The Plain Dealer," declared Oakar, who was so angry she stopped talking to Plain Dealer reporters on that day. "They do not elect me, the people do."
Meanwhile, in Washington, Ruess was working on a follow-up article--typically known as a "react story," which gauges the response of politicians to news reported the day before. She called North Carolina Democrat Charlie Rose, the task force chairman and a friend of Oakar. Although he did not personally respond to Plain Dealer calls, his office issued a statement: "Any rumors relating to any task force efforts perpetuated by unidentified staff or official sources are absolutely false."
Ruess was also pursuing another tantalizing lead: a memorandum that a Republican source claimed originated from the task force investigating problems at the House post office. The memorandum, said the source, contained a list of the specific allegations that were being made about employees. It seemed likely that such a memorandum would support the allegations made in Ruess's earlier story.
But there were problems. Ruess's source would not say who wrote the memorandum. Moreover, the source refused to send the actual memorandum. Instead, the source transcribed the memorandum onto plain paper, sans letterhead, before faxing it to Ruess. Worst, the source could not vouch for whether the memorandum's author had firsthand knowledge of the allegations contained in it.
Ruess showed the memorandum to Brazaitis and explained that she trusted her source, who claimed the memorandum was real. Brazaitis reviewed it and signed off on its use.
In the April 5 Plain Dealer, the memorandum appeared as a "task force memo obtained by The Plain Dealer." According to information attributed to the memorandum, task force members had interviewed thirty House post office employees who supplied information leading to allegations of ghost employees and abuse of overtime.
But nowhere in the copy of the memorandum did it indicate in any way that allegations of ghost employees or abuse of overtime were specifically linked to Oakar.
The timing of the articles could not have been worse for Oakar. She already faced a tough reelection campaign for making overdrafts at the members-only House bank, a minor perk which turned into a media-driven scandal. In 1991, news began to seep out that House members, including Oakar, often wrote checks from their House bank accounts without enough money to cover the check. The overdrafts were covered by other members' funds until the overdrawn members' paychecks were deposited.
Although more than two hundred members of Congress had made overdrafts, Oakar's 213 overdrafts put her near the top of most lists of frequent abusers. Her opponent in the primary, Tim Hagan, would label her "a leading check bouncer" in campaign ads.
But vindication on the ghost employee issue seemed at hand when Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle rallied to Oakar's defense. Just five days after the story about the task force memorandum appeared, it became the subject of discussion on the House floor within a larger debate on the House post office.
There, task force chairman Rose denounced the memorandum. "In Saturday's Cleveland Plain Dealer, there was a paragraph that said that the paper had a task force memo," he announced. "Now that would certainly have been a leak if, in fact, [The Plain Dealer] had a task force memo."
Task force vice chair, Republican Pat Roberts, said, "At least, to my knowledge, there has been no staff memo in regard to the issue that [Rose] raised . . . any reference to that as far as the post office investigation is concerned is not pertinent, and it is not right. And that is the sum of it."
It is unusual for Congressional leaders to discuss local coverage on the House floor, which suggests that Oakar likely worked the phones, asking friends and fellow committee members to come to her defense. Oakar probably did not have to work hard to garner the support of Democratic leaders, who could not afford to let Oakar--co-chair of the party's platform committee and an incumbent in a seat coveted by Republicans--become an easy target for a Republican smear campaign.
Oakar was present during the debate and was relieved to hear the denunciation of the memorandum. She was hopeful that this news would be reported in The Plain Dealer. But when Ruess's story on the House post office debate appeared, it did not mention the comments of Rose and Roberts.
Instead, Plain Dealer reporters, columnists, and editorial writers continued to hammer on Oakar during April, writing thirteen articles based on information gathered largely by Ruess. Three articles contained a specific reference to ghost employees, though this specific issue disappeared from the stories after Oakar began crying foul.
On May 7, Brazaitis, who was working with Ruess on an election-season profile of Oakar, needed a list of Oakar's accomplishments. But when he called, Oakar did not want to talk about her profile. She had one thing on her mind: a retraction.
Oakar and Brazaitis had known each other for years. As a reporter in Cleveland, Brazaitis followed Oakar when she was a member of Cleveland City Council and later when she was elected to Congress in 1976. When she arrived in Washington, Brazaitis asked her to lunch, and the two remained friendly.
Within the Beltway, many traditional reporter/subject barriers blur, as reporters and politicians alike come to feel they are a part of the same celebrity show. In the late '70s, for instance, after reading a Brazaitis article about his daughter, Oakar offered to take his daughter to a White House ceremony for the unveiling of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, for which Oakar had been a key sponsor. Sometime in the 1980s, Brazaitis asked Oakar to consider his son for an internship position in her office. Brazaitis and Oakar eventually decided that that would not be a good idea, though Oakar did offer to write his son a recommendation he could use finding a job with another representative.
Despite their history, the phone conversation between Brazaitis and Oakar ended badly. Hours later, he wrote a letter to Oakar stating he was "distressed" by the phone call, "especially because it ended without a real resolution." In the letter, he requested a face-to-face meeting.
This was not the first time Oakar complained to The Plain Dealer about what she believed was poor and inaccurate coverage of her work. She had just requested through Publisher Alex Machaskee to meet with editorial director Brent Larkin and others. She was upset about an editorial in which she was criticized for her overdrafts. Oakar would later say she always felt unfairly targeted on the overdraft issue, and that the media seemed to barely mention the fact that taxpayers' money was never at risk. She notes that fellow Ohio Congressmen had more. (Edward Feighan and Louis Stokes had made 397 and 551 overdrafts, respectively.)
Early in the 1990s she complained about coverage she received to Machaskee and Director of Public Affairs Bill Barnard. Barnard had arranged a breakfast meeting with Oakar to ask why she was refusing to attend one of The Plain Dealer's much-hyped 150th anniversary celebrations. At the meeting, she complained that the paper's reporters ignored her positive legislative work, noting the little credit she received in the paper for efforts of her staff to keep the government from closing the NASA Lewis Research Center.
Oakar believed she wasn't "covered properly, with respect to the manner in which other papers covered me." One example Oakar cited was The Plain Dealer's coverage of the American Cancer Society award she received with Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. According to Oakar, The Washington Post mentioned the award, but it was only noted in The Plain Dealer as a gossip column item.
"It was not publicized in The Plain Dealer, except for an item in Mary Strassmeyer's column [which] did not refer to the award, but referred to the fact that I was dancing with [Congressman] Barney Frank," Oakar said under oath in 1995. "And I was told by the [Associated Press] photographer that the Washington bureau did not want a picture of me receiving . . . my receiving the award, but they were very anxious to get a picture of my dancing with Barney Frank."
Frank is an openly gay member of Congress.
On May 13, Brazaitis met with Oakar in her office in the Rayburn Building. It was a long meeting that was also attended by Oakar staffers and covered a lot of ground about Oakar's career. When it was time for Oakar to go to the House floor, Brazaitis accompanied her and waited for her to vote. Afterward, they talked alone, and Oakar asked about a retraction. Brazaitis told Oakar that the paper was still investigating the issue of ghost employees. Oakar was not satisfied.
With the primary election less than a month away, Oakar was meeting with campaign consultants to discuss her reelection strategy. Frustrated over the paper's refusal to print a retraction, she also began to seriously consider filing a lawsuit against The Plain Dealer. She discussed this with her family and members of her staff.
Pursuing a libel action against a major media outlet is an expensive undertaking, because large dailies have deep pockets and excellent lawyers. It's debatable whether Oakar could have sued The Plain Dealer without the financial help of longtime political ally James Carney Jr., who loaned her the money.
During the first week of May, Oakar and her nephew, Ignatius DeMio, who was working on her campaign, decided to ask Carney for a $28,000 loan, according to testimony later given by DeMio. The ostensible reason for the loan was to make funds available for campaign expenses. But the odd manner in which it was handled later became the basis for an indictment against Oakar for violations of federal elections laws.
This was not the first time DeMio acted as a go-between to funnel money from Carney to Oakar. In September 1991, Carney loaned DeMio $50,000, which DeMio deposited into a personal Ameritrust account. DeMio then wrote Oakar a $50,000 personal check drawn from that account. Two months later, Oakar gave DeMio five hundred $100 bills to repay Carney.
On May 8, 1992, DeMio, who, as a young boy, handed out campaign literature for his aunt, received $28,000 from Carney, which he deposited into his personal Ameritrust account. Two weeks later, DeMio used money from that account to purchase a $5,000 cashier's check at another bank. The check, which named Oakar as the remitter, was made payable to attorney Don C. Iler.
The next day, Iler filed an $18 million lawsuit on behalf of Oakar against The Plain Dealer, charging the paper libeled her by printing allegations of wrongdoing that it could not substantiate.
Dreams of Martin Hoke
Iler was no stranger to The Plain Dealer, which is represented by Baker & Hostetler, a blue-chip firm nationally recognized for its libel work. Iler represented Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank D. Celebrezze Sr. in his libel suit against The Plain Dealer in 1986. Celebrezze filed suit after then-Plain Dealer reporter Gary Webb wrote a story alleging that groups with links to organized crime donated to Celebrezze's reelection campaign. The case never went to court; after several years, the two sides settled. Iler also represented Judge James Kilcoyne in his 1992 libel suit against The Plain Dealer. The case was eventually dismissed in 1996.
After Oakar filed her lawsuit, which became Case 232696, she apparently received pressure from the city's power brokers to drop the suit. One friendly request came less than a month after the lawsuit was filed--from civic leader and Plain Dealer Publisher Alex Machaskee. On June 6, 1992, the two were attending a black-tie affair at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel hosted by developer Sam Miller. Seeing Oakar among the 250 guests, Machaskee approach her table and extended his hand, bending forward to kiss her on the cheek. "I wish you would drop the lawsuit," he said. "Why are you doing this? We promised to change."
(In his September 1997 deposition, Machaskee admitted kissing Oakar, but denied asking her to drop the lawsuit. According to Machaskee, Brooklyn Mayor John Coyne, seated beside Oakar, said, "Why don't you two settle this?" Machaskee said he replied, "That's up to Mary Rose.")
During his deposition, Machaskee denied asking any of the city's powerful elite to intercede. But it seems clear from the deposition that Oakar did receive a number of calls. Iler specifically asked Machaskee if he had asked developer Sam Miller, Cleveland Indians owner Richard Jacobs, and attorney George Forbes to speak with Oakar about dropping the suit. Machaskee denied asking any one of them to raise the issue with Oakar.
The first witness deposed by Iler was Washington bureau reporter Michelle Ruess. Pregnant at the time of her first deposition, Ruess was called to answer questions four times between August of 1993 and June of 1995, her words easily filling more than one thousand pages of testimony. (Oakar was present during each of her depositions.)
Armed with a copy of Ruess's notes, Iler questioned Ruess about what exactly each source had said about Oakar on April 2. Iler asked dozens of questions about the memorandum Ruess used in her second story.
From the beginning, Ruess never denied that she was unable to prove the allegations about ghost employees raised in her story. "We were given a series of names, but we were never able to prove that they were ghost employees that I know of," she said under oath. Ruess also admitted she never learned the identity of the author of the task force memorandum.
Like all the reporters deposed in the case, Ruess insisted that her story was nonetheless accurate, because it reported only that allegations had been made--not that they were true. "Our story didn't say she had ghost employees," Ruess said. "Our story merely said the allegations had come up before the task force."
In his deposition, Washington bureau chief Tom Brazaitis offered the same explanation. "The story we were working on was about allegations that were made, that the involvement of employees led to the resignation from the committee of Mary Rose Oakar. It was not a story about identifying ghost employees," he said during his lengthy testimony, given in July of 1995. "We were not trying to prove whether the allegations were true or not. We were trying to establish that allegations had been made."
This was clearly the defense that Plain Dealer lawyers were preparing--in essence, that the truth of the allegations didn't matter. It was enough that they had been made, which The Plain Dealer then reported. But such an argument can be risky to argue before a jury.
Jonathan Entin, a professor at Case Western Reserve School of Law, says the theory behind libel case law is that "public officials shouldn't be able to sue critics every time the press makes mistakes." But, he says, when the malice standard is applied, reporters are at risk if they had some reason to think the story might be wrong, and yet they printed it anyway.
The Plain Dealer's argument is particularly difficult to make before a jury, says Kevin O'Neill, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. "Media [are] sufficiently villified that there is sufficient risk to rolling the dice with a jury. You can't be sure the jury will apply the law faithfully. They may be more willing than [case law allows] to punish journalists based on editorial second-guessing."
During questioning of Brazaitis, Iler tried to force Brazaitis to reveal the identity of his Democratic source--the one whose words appeared on the front page of the April 3, 1992 edition of the paper, next to Oakar's picture. Iler, after establishing that the source was a Democratic Congressman whom Brazaitis had known for several years, asked simply, "Was it Dennis Eckart?"
Louis Colombo, The Plain Dealer's attorney, immediately instructed Brazaitis not to answer. (It was reputed that Eckart and Oakar did not get along at the time, adding support to the theory that he might be her critic.)
"I have neither read nor have been involved in the lawsuit on either party's behalf," says Eckart. "Beyond that, Ihave no further comment on what either lawyer said."
Throughout their depositions, Plain Dealer reporters rarely answered questions directly, using double-speak and debating the meaning of every question. At times, their answers seemed like an exercise in obfuscation. Take, for example, this exchange with Brazaitis, now a senior editor in the Washington bureau:
Iler: . . . My question to you is, if you wanted to take more time to find out if the allegations were true or not, could you have done that?
Brazaitis: It's an interesting question, but it doesn't relate to my work in the story.
Q: Can't you answer that?
A: It's a question about trying to prove the truth about something we were not trying to prove . . .
Q: My question to you is this: If you wanted to take more time to determine whether the allegations were true or not, could you have done that? That's my question. Isn't that a simple question?
A: It's a simple question, but it doesn't relate to what was going on . . .
Q: Do you have any doubts today that there are, in fact, two ghost employees linked to Mary Rose Oakar?
A: It was not a question that we dealt with in our reporting . . . I don't know the answer on the ghost employees.
Q: But do you have some doubts as to whether there are, in fact, two ghost employees?
A: Sir, I'm in the doubt business. I'm a reporter.
Oakar's five depositions--taken by Baker & Hostetler lawyers between December 1995 and November 1998--were equally contentious and lengthy. Baker & Hostetler attorney Colombo dug deep into Oakar's closet, questioning her on a number of well-documented problems previously reported in The Plain Dealer. These issues included:
* Oakar's 1985 purchase of a townhouse with a former staffer, Margaret Mathna, who had received a raise at the time of the purchase. (In 1997, a House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct concluded that the townhouse purchase and the raise were independent of each other, and that the purchase of the property violated no rules.)
* Oakar's 1985-'86 payments of salary to Mildred Vinicor, who was living in New York while working for Oakar. Although the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct found that Vinicor provided documents to substantiate her work, it ruled Oakar violated House rules. (Oakar later repaid the U.S. Treasury for the salary Vinicor received while living in New York.)
* Oakar's House bank overdrafts. In 1995, Oakar was indicted on seven felony counts--including converting public money from an overdrawn House bank account and hiding sources of campaign contributions that emanated from businessman James Carney Jr. Because she was under indictment at the time of the depositions, she refused to answer many questions about the House bank, pleading she was protected by the Fifth Amendment. (In January of 1998, in a plea arrangement with the Justice Department, all House bank charges were dropped; Oakar admitted guilt to two misdemeanors involving campaign contributions. She received a fine and two years of probation.)
During Oakar's depositions, The Plain Dealer lawyers seemed determined to get Oakar to admit that these issues, especially her bank overdrafts, had had a negative effect on her reputation. Doing so would take the punch out of Oakar's claims that her reputation was damaged by The Plain Dealer stories on the ghost employees.
Oakar denied that the House bank overdrafts had any negative impact on her reputation.
"I believe that I would like to allow a jury to decide that," she said. "It's hard for me to decide now whether it damaged my reputation, because I think many people today are very enlightened about what that House bank episode was all about."
Plain Dealer lawyers also pressed Oakar about the timing of the filing of her lawsuit, asking her if political consultants suggested it. "I don't think that helps a campaign--filing a lawsuit against a major newspaper for lying about you," she said.
During her depositions, Oakar said she was bothered by a recurring dream she linked to the articles. In the dream, Oakar said, she sees a brochure--produced by her opponent, Martin Hoke, or the Republican party during Oakar's 1992 general election campaign--which includes excerpts about ghost employees from Plain Dealer articles.
(In reality, Hoke, using a campaign that exploited the country's anti-incumbent mood, beat Oakar in 1992 by garnering 56 percent of the vote. At his victory party, a band played the popular Wizard of Oz song "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.")
The depositions stretched on over months, growing to include journalism experts called in by both sides to judge whether the Plain Dealer stories were fair. The discovery process was also slowed by each side's suspicion of the other. Plain Dealer lawyers complained in one brief that Oakar had "cynically destroyed all of her campaign records rather than preserve and turn them over." The delays, nonetheless, clearly benefited The Plain Dealer, because it tested the patience and wallet of Oakar, who, in the middle of all this, was indicted--putting her own future in jeopardy. As long as the case did not move toward trial, The Plain Dealer had nothing to lose.
The case was also slowed by each side's legal maneuvers to have the case moved from judge to judge. For instance, Baker & Hostetler successfully argued that the first judge assigned to the case, Common Pleas Court Judge Linda Rocker, should be removed, because she was friendly with Oakar. Later, Iler tried to have Timothy E. McMonagle removed from the case, arguing McMonagle was beholden to The Plain Dealer, because he was seeking a judicial endorsement in an upcoming election. Iler's motion was denied, but the case moved off McMonagle's docket when the judge moved to the Court of Appeals.
"We were dying on the vine," Iler says of the wait on McMonagle's docket.
The case, which passed through the hands of Judge Ronald Suster and others, was eventually given to visiting Judge J. Joseph Cirigliano in late 1996. This broke the logjam, because Cirigliano began to rule on motions and move the case forward, forcing both sides to complete a flurry of depositions and motions. In late 1998, Cirigliano denied a Plain Dealer motion for summary judgment--which argued there was not enough evidence that the reporters had shown malice, one of the prerequisites for libel. In essence, the judge said there were factual issues that the jury needed to evaluate. This set the stage for a trial.
But the case that dragged on for nearly seven years was never going to be heard before a jury. At a pre-trial conference in February, both sides began discussing a settlement in earnest. Agreeing on the cash settlement was the easy part. Crucial to the settlement was a press release, which boiled down to printing a statement that would save face for both parties. Oakar and The Plain Dealer had to agree on placement and language.
Oakar wanted a statement to appear on the front page. The Plain Dealer did not. Oakar settled for a front-page refer, a notation alerting readers that the settlement statement was contained inside. (The actual statement appeared on page one of the Metro section.)
Both sides submitted their version of the statement, but it was the judge who finally traded in his robe for his PR hat and hammered out the final wording of the statement.
The final statement gave Oakar what she wanted, in an admission by the paper that the allegations "were later found to be untrue" and that "Oakar was rightfully upset that erroneous information supplied to it was published in The Plain Dealer." And The Plain Dealer got Oakar to agree that it had, in effect, made an honest mistake:"The Plain Dealer reported the allegations when it learned of them because it believed the information was reliable. Ms. Oakar acknowledges that was The Plain Dealer's perspective in its reporting of this matter."
Oakar insists today that she would never have filed the lawsuit if The Plain Dealer had admitted its mistake when she first complained. "I asked for a retraction many times,"she says. The long battle has obviously left a mark on Oakar, who can recite entire passages verbatim from every deposition and Plain Dealer story about the House post office.
Oakar would not discuss the financial terms of the settlement, though she says it's not enough to heal her wounds. "No amount of money can compensate me for those articles," she says gloomily.
Her attorney has a different view. "My client is very happy," he says of the settlement.
Louis Colombo, the lead Baker & Hostetler lawyer for The Plain Dealer, refused to discuss the case, other than to insist that Oakar did get a retraction--of sorts--in a July 23, 1992 story. In this story, on the first house task force investigation report, Ruess noted the report's conclusion that no House post office employees being investigated were "associated with Rep. Mary Rose Oakar or were ghost employees, as erroneously reported in the press."
In the end, aside from running up monstrous legal bills, what did the case accomplish? Oakar has found some measure of vindication, though it seems unlikely that she'll ever resurrect her political career. The Plain Dealer seems to have become even more recalcitrant, insisting in trade publications like Editor & Publisher that it stands by the original story, without a word about the ethics of running unsubstantiated allegations.
As for Ruess--whose reporting was caught between media and politics, Washington's two egos--she has long since left the scandal-driven town. She lives in New Jersey, where she recently started a new job, one in which her experience will no doubt be useful: She is a press secretary for New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt.
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