(CN) – A Lap-Band marketer operating as 1 800 Get Thin says the Los Angeles Times perpetrated a “Chicago-style protection scheme” by attacking it in news articles strategically placed beside expensive advertisements for competitors that offer the same procedure.
After printing “attack articles” about Beverly Hills-based 1 800 Get Thin, and selling convenient ad space to its competitors at a premium, the Times “sold immunity against adverse news” to the competitors and suppressed comments endorsing Get Thin, the complaint states.
Two Times journalists, business columnist Michael Hiltzik and reporter Stuart Pfeifer, are singled out as defendants in the Superior Court lawsuit against the newspaper operator and two distributors.
“Commencing in February, 2010, and continuing through September, 2011, Times defendants, with their employee writers, Hiltzik and Pfeifer began publishing false articles and columns focused primarily on 1 800 Get Thin,” the complaint states. “These articles were sponsored by several of 1 800 Get Thin’s competitors that offered, advertised, or promoted the same or similar types of surgical weight loss procedures or programs. Each article and column prominently displayed as sponsors 1 800 Get Thin’s competitors.”
Times spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan called the marketer’s latest complaint “baseless.”
“They tried to bring these same claims in federal court, and Judge Otis Wright rejected them,” Sullivan told Courthouse News. “Three other lawsuits filed against the Los Angeles Times and its employees have been thrown out of court. We are confident that this latest, equally meritless lawsuit also will be thrown out.”
On Friday, two days after this case was filed, Pfeifer wrote another article for the Times about the fifth person it says has died at a clinic associated with 1 800 Get Thin. The article also makes note of the “series of lawsuits” that the newspaper has faced from 1 800 Get Thin. Courthouse News reported on one lawsuit that 1 800 Get Thin filed against Hiltzik in January 2011.
1 800 Get Thin is one of many companies that markets Allergan’s Lap-Band, a silicone ring that surgeons implant around a patient’s stomach to discourage overeating. It says competing services paid a premium to the Times and its advertising affiliate, L.A. Links, to buy keywords associated with the attack articles.
“Through this ‘premium’ payment the advertisers were assured and guaranteed that their advertisements would appear on the articles where a disfavored competitor, including 1 800 Get Thin, was mentioned and attacked,” according to the complaint.
Boosting revenue for the ailing newspaper was the sole motivation behind the Times’ “sham attack against its advertisers’ competitors,” the weight-loss company claims, noting that the newspaper is plagued by a $13 billion debt and filed filed for bankruptcy on December 8, 2008, as part of the Tribune Co.
“Its extreme financial condition has placed it in the position of operating what amounts to a gangland protection racket,” 1 800 Get Thin says, adding that the newspaper essentially “sold immunity against adverse news” to its advertising clients.
After blackballing 1 800 Get Thin from advertising, the Times offered to lift the ban last year on the condition that it pay up to three times as much for the space, according to the complaint.
Though one woman, died at the Angeles Medical Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, from Lap-Band surgery complications in May 2011, the Times never reported on the death because Angeles Hospital advertises with the Times, according to the complaint.
Hiltzik instead wrote articles that falsely claimed 1 800 Get Thin was responsible for the death of a Lap-Band patient and then posted unflattering comments about the company using fake names or pseudonyms, the lawsuit claims.
“Many blogger comments are the product of ‘sock-puppeted’ aliases where Hiltzk poses as a ‘shill’ to make derogatory comments about 1800 Get Thin,” the complaint states. “Hiltzik has assisted other ‘bloggers’ by providing them information about 1 800 Get Thin and utilized them as his alter ego ‘shills’ to attack 1 800 Get Thin as part of the anti-competitive advertiser protection scheme.”
Yet when readers leave positive comments about 1 800 Get Thin on the newspaper’s online articles, the Times allegedly hits delete.
Hiltzik also allegedly tried to extort Farid Zarif, a surgeon who performs Lap Bands for 1 800 Get Thin, telling him he had violated federal law by operating an unlicensed clinic.
“Defendant Hiltzik’s statements to Dr. Zarif were untrue and he knew they were untrue at the time they were made,” 1 800 Get Thin claims, saying the statements were “part of the ‘protection’ scheme to punish competitors … who would not pay ‘protection’ to defendants.”
The complaint accuses Hiltzik of wiretapping, a claim that echoes allegations made by attorney Robert Silverman in a lawsuit he filed earlier this month.
1 800 Get Thin is represented by Konrad Trope of Los Angeles. The lawsuit seeks treble damages for violations of the California Cartwright Antitrust Act and unfair business practices.
Trope told Courthouse News that the scheme “is a new form of extortion.”
“The LA Times has a personal vendetta against my client,” he said. “What they’re doing is an infomercial on the internet, instead of an objective news report. But what sets it apart, is that the stories include competitor advertisements that are embedded into the text of the article. It’s just obnoxious.”