Jury finds for Citizen in Andrews’ suit

-A A +A
By Lou Elliott Jones

   A Levy County jury has unanimously decided the Chiefland Citizen did not damage Andy Dennis Andrews’ name, reputation and businesses in a 2007 editorial calling for fair, clean city elections, and a series of stories about a state investigation into 11 voters’ right to vote in Chiefland elections.
   The four women and two men who deliberated for an hour and 15 minutes on Friday also rejected Andrews’ claim for more than $17 million in monetary damages, and wrote on the verdict form that he was entitled $0 in compensatory and $0 in special emotional distresses, damage to his reputation and anguish — damages.
   The suit named former Citizen Editor Carolyn Risner, former Publisher Dale Bowen, former Staff Writer Jeff Hardison, Citrus County Chronicle Publisher Gerry Mulligan, the Citizen’s  former parent company Florida Newspapers Inc. — in which Mulligan was an officer — and key shareholders such as Landmark Community Newspapers.
   The defendants denied Andrews’ claims of defamaton, defamation by implication and malice, and refuted his claim that the stories were retaliation for his refusal to sell his newspaper to Florida Newspapers.        Mulligan testified no offer to purchase the Journal was ever made.
   The Citizen also defended the stories as being truthful, the facts correct and the newsworthiness of the voter residency issue being investigated by government officials.
   It was Andrews’ third try to win a judgment against the Citizen. His first two attempts were dismissed by a judge in 2009 because of flaws in the filings.
   Andrews testified that the editorial and 12 stories cited in the suit were truthful.
   “You can print the truth over and over,” Andrews testified last week.
   “The truth  becomes offensive,” he said
   Andrews, publisher of the Levy County Journal newspaper, has extensive land holdings in Levy County, is a landscape tree grower and has timber interests. He is a former city commissioner  and a deacon in his church. Because of his position and involvement in the community Judge Stan Griffis, who heard the case, ruled Andrews is a limited public figure.
   The businessman had argued he was a private figure because he left public office 20 years ago.
However, he inserted himself into the controversy by publishing in the Journal on the same date the Citizen started its series, an editorial he dictated on the same subject.
   Public  and limited figures have a different standard to meet — actual knowledge of falsity or  a reckless disregard for the truth— in proving  defamation or defamation by implication. Here, even Andrews acknowledged the Citizen articles were truthful and accurate.
   Andrews said in the suit that the editorial and articles caused him distress, depression and were a distraction that caused him to ignore his businesses and lose money.
   “It put me in a state of mind that . . . that . . . I was that . . . I could not tend to my business like I should,” Andrews said. Andrews also admitted under questioning by his lawyer that the questions raised by the stories worried him. “I was worried more about going to jail,” he said.
   The stories, which ran between August and December 2007, followed defeated City Commissioner Alice Monyei’s complaint to the Florida Secretary of State about 11 voters — including Andrews and five members of his family.
    Andrews and three members of his family were registered to vote using his business address: 13 S. E. 1st Street in Chiefland. Two others — a brother and nephew — were registered at another Chiefland business address.
   Retired Army Col. Gary Holland, assistant general counsel to the Secretary of State, said the case was the most thorough investigation  he had seen. It was referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and later State Attorney Bill Cervone.
    Cervone testified he decided not to prosecute Andrews and other members of his family for voter fraud because the state does not clearly define residency in voter law “as the place you lay your head.”
    However, he did tell Andrews’ two daughters — one of whom lives in Tennessee and another who lives in Gainesville — they could no longer vote in Chiefland elections.
    Risner, who edited the stories and accepted responsibility for the headlines on the stories, spent more than three hours on the stand being questioned by Andrews’ attorney Mike Piscitelli of Fort Lauderdale and Citizen attorney Conrad Shumadine of Norfolk, Va.
    In a statement on Monday, Risner, the editor of the Williston Pioneer, said, “The truth is always the best defense. I’m glad to put this behind me and turn my attention to producing quality newspapers that will help build stronger communities.”
    Mulligan said, “We are happy with the decision by the jury members. They understood the importance of a newspaper’s need to be able to investigate important issues in the community.”
   Risner and Hardison were both once employed by the Levy County Journal. Andrews alleged they held grudges against him. 
    Retired University of Florida Professor Jon Roosenraad testified their prior employment created a conflict of interest in handling stories involving Andrews. He also did an analysis of wording in the story claiming that using the phrase “voter fraud” should have raised red flags with the editor and publisher.
    Shumadine in a motion to dismiss the case after Andrews’ first round of testimony said paying damages would be “nothing more than an award for telling the gospel truth.”
   The Citizen’s attorney repeated Andrews’ testimony that the 12 articles cited in his suit did not contain factual errors.
    Andrews instead testified that the articles “never stopped coming.”
    “What occurred was the state didn’t stop investigating,” Shumadine said. “Instead the state kept finding probable cause” to continue the investigation and refer the case to the prosecutor for possible charges.
   “When the state doesn’t stop, the newspaper has a responsibility to report. What Mr. Andrews is asking the court to do is rule that the truth after a time can become offensive. The truth can never, ever be offensive.”
   Shumadine said he could not conceive of anyone saying a newspaper cannot print the truth. “Mr. Andrews is asking the court to try the newspaper for telling the truth.”
   He also argued, “They (the articles) were absolutely newsworthy.” To back that up he mentioned a number of times that the series won an honorable mention for investigative reporting from the Florida Press Association.
   Andrews testified that he felt  2007 editorial calling for fair, clean city elections was aimed at him, although no names were mentioned in the editorial.
   Monyei, who lost the 2007 city election by 42 votes to Commissioner Frank Buie, testified that she filed the complaint questioning the right of voters who do not actually live in the city to cast ballots in city elections.
   She denied the Citizen and its staff had anything to do with the complaint.
Her complaint sparked a months’ long investigation into 11 people who cast votes in the August 2007 election — including six members of the Andrews family. No charges were ever filed in the case.
   Shumadine said the newspaper articles “occurred as a result of the acts of others and not the newspaper” and “Mr. Andrews own conduct” in registering himself and his family to vote at a business address without bedrooms, living areas or a kitchen.