Seminole Tribe vs. St. Pete Times
Lawyer Counts Ways Newspaper Damaged Tribe
By Charles Flowers
FORT LAUDERDALE - An attorney for the Seminole Tribe of Florida has listed 11 ways the Tribe was harmed by reporters and other agents of the St. Petersburg Times, a newspaper that calls itself "Florida's best" but has few fans among Florida's largest Tribe.
West Palm Beach attorney Donald Orlovsky filed an amended complaint in Broward Circuit Court here seeking at least $15,000 for damages resulting from the newspaper's 1997 investigation of the Seminole Tribe.
The lawyer accused the newspaper of invading the Tribe's private records, including many stored on computers, and publishing much of that information to the detriment of the Tribe.
He also said the Tribe has incurred expenses in upgrading its computer systems and other Tribal security as a result of what the Tribe considered an unlawful invasion of privacy.
Disruptions in the business relationships of the Tribe and "disruptive and negative changes in employment relationships" between the Tribe and employees which resulted from the newspaper's solicitation of confidential information were also claimed.
One damaging consequence of the investigation was the "denigration of the stature of the Seminole Tribe in the eyes of its tribal membership, particularly with respect to defendants'
unauthorized acquisition of information relating to tribal ceremonies, rituals and other tribal matters designed to preserve and strengthen tribal heritage as well as the spiritual fabric that unites Seminole Indians on a tribal level," according to the complaint.
"The suggestion of a breach of faith between an Indian and his or her tribe is an extremely grave and serious matter among American Indians which threatens tribal unity and the efficient operation of the Tribe," the lawsuit alleges.
The Tribe also claims damages for what the lawyer calls "criminal practice" by the newspaper's employees.
Alleged evidence of this includes letters sent by former Times computer-assisted reporting editor Brad Goldstein to Chairman James E. Billie's assistant, Pat Diamond, tribal dentist Timothy Lozon, and the former tribal accountant, who is not named. These letters constitute three separate instances of "criminal activity" under Florida's Computer Crimes Act, and together constitute a "pattern of criminal activity," under Florida statutes, the lawyer said.
The amended, 29-page complaint, which names Goldstein and current Times reporter Jeff Testerman as defendants along with the Times Publishing Company, includes for the first time Goldstein's letter to Lozon, which reads in part:
"Dear Mr. Lozon:
"I am a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. We've formulated a team which has been working on an indepth look at the Seminole Tribe for the past five months. It's been brought to my attention that you used to work as the dentist for the tribe. We've heard some stories about the indian (sic) health service, your replacement, and the administration of the HIS money on the reservation...You can help us follow the trail of federal money and perhaps explain how someone can be paid to administer the HIS program and be executive director of the tribe at the same time."
That letter is exhibit "B" of the amended complaint. Exhibit "A" is Goldstein's June 30, 1997 letter to Mrs. Diamond, which encouraged her to violate both Florida law and her own trust relationship with the tribe by sending Goldstein "certain documents." In that letter, which has been called the "smoking gun" in the case, Goldstein claimed a high purpose for his espionage effort.
"No one else is willing to ensure that tribal members get what is owed to them," Goldstein wrote. "The FBI isn't. No one but the press. I hope you look into your heart and do the right thing. Innocent people are being hurt. And if something isn't done, then the problem could swallow up everyone."
According to an article in Editor & Publisher the Times' managing editor Neil Brown admitted Goldstein was wrong to send the letter to Mrs. Diamond.
"The letter did go out without the knowledge of the senior editors of this newspaper," Brown told E&P reporter David Noack. "That's me, Paul Tash, the executive editor, and even the line editors working on the story. We talked to the reporter. He should not have sent that letter out. We should not have sent the letter out and we wouldn't have authorized him to do so."
'Fast and Loose'
A second source in Noack's story, Steve Geimann, president of the national Society of Professional Journalists, was also critical of Goldstein's letter.
"Urging and suggesting that someone mail, anonymously, documents is an open invitation to play fast and loose with the facts," Geimann was quoted as saying.
But the letters did go out, and other Tribal members were interviewed by telephone, and a series of articles was published in the St. Petersburg Times. Called "Seminole Gambling: A Trail of Millions," it is still available on the newspaper's website, www.sptimes.com.
Orlovsky says in his complaint that even more damages resulted from the publication of that series.
"The Seminole Tribe has suffered irreparable harm by virtue of the persistent efforts of the defendants to unlawfully interfere with plaintiff's employees," the complaint states. "...Further, the Seminole Tribe has been and continues to be irreparably harmed each time the defendants publish information relating to the Seminole Tribe which the defendants derive from confidential and proprietary documents..."
In attempting to head off the newspaper's "freedom of the press" defense, the complaint states that the Tribe does not "seek to limit freedom of the press in any way."
"Consistent with well established law, the Seminole Tribe requests that this court enter injunctive relief in favor of the Tribe prohibiting the defendants from information gathering in violation of state criminal and civil laws and in tortious violation of the rights and liberties of the Seminole Tribe."
Besides the claim for damages, and an injunction, the complaint also asks the court to impress a "constructive trust" on all confidential and proprietary documents, which the Times may possess.
Attornies for the Times called the amended complain "little more than a vehicle for forcing the Defendants to reveal the identities of their sources of information, for preventing the Defendants from reporting further about the Plaintiff, and for attacking the truth of the articles without having to meet the legal standards for an action for defamation."
The newspaper's lawyer, George Rahdert of St. Petersburg, filed a 10-page motion to dismiss the complaint, and a shorter motion to strike portions of the complaint critical of the Times' coverage, and references to it as racially motivated and inaccurate. Rahdert also asked the judge to strike Orlovsky's claim for attorney's fees.
Circuit Judge Leonard Fleet has previously denied the Times' request for a change of venue from Broward County. If the judge accepts the case for trial, it will be held here.