MILWAUKEE (CN) – A school bus driver claims in court that she was fired after a TV station invaded her privacy with “ambush” journalism that reported her 7-year-old misdemeanor prostitution conviction.
Melissa Dumas sued reporter Robert Koebel and Journal Communications, in Milwaukee County Court.
She claims the defendants “ambushed” her in April this year, broadcasting footage of her on Milwaukee’s WTMJ Channel 4, and posting it on the Internet.
WTMJ-4 showed footage of Dumas and included a shot of her bus number in its TV broadcasts and website.
On the website footage, which was available this morning, Koebel said he launched the investigation out of concern for the hiring policies of Milwaukee Public Schools.
Koebel blasted the driver in the footage while she was talking on her cell phone in what appeared to be a parking lot.
Dumas was clearly stunned by Koebel’s approach. “What are you following me for?” she asked in the clip.
Koebel replied: “We’re doing this because it seems no one else is really keeping track.”
Koebel claims in the video that the school district denied WTMJ’s original request for a complete list of tax-paid district bus drivers at least 6 months before the story aired. (The video footage was first posted online at WTMJ’s website on April 26.) Koebel says in the clip that when his station “finally” got the list, “the [WTMJ] I-TEAM got to work.”
He says the I-TEAM looked through public records, police reports and mug shots to do its own background check on bus drivers.
Dumas’ mug shots were shown extensively throughout the video footage, which lasted several minutes. In the clip, Koebel can be heard in the video, asking how could “someone like this … get a job driving our kids?”
Dumas says in her complaint that she was a “victim of ‘ambush journalism.'”
She claims Koebel and his station “unnecessarily and unreasonably revealed background information” about her, including the 7-year-old misdemeanor prostitution conviction.
Koebel mentions the prostitution conviction at least six times during the video.
In the footage, he reports that Dumas’ drivers license was suspended in 2001 and that she was cited for inattentive driving.
Dumas says in her complaint that the “inattentive driving” allegation is false. According to the accident report, which Koebel posted online next to WTMJ’s online “I-Team” report, it is noted that “inattentive driving” may have been a factor, but states that no citations were issued.
Koebel also posted links to Dumas’ prostitution arrest report, dated 9-1-2005, and a marijuana possession arrest report, dated 8-15-2001, on the TV station’s website.
Dumas says in her complaint that Koebel took extreme steps “only intended to unnecessarily sensationalize an otherwise un-newsworthy story.”
She claims Koebel followed a bus she was driving “in such a manner as to interfere with the safe operation of the bus and its occupants.” And she claims he contacted the manager of the bus company to personally advise the manager that Dumas was a convicted prostitute.
Koebel reports in the video footage that Milwaukee Public Schools sent this voicemail message to parents” “In recent days it was reported to MPS that a few school bus drivers had information in their background checks that needed a second look.”
The TV station showed a partial transcript of the voicemail message in its news report, as shown in the online footage.
Dumas’ attorney, Richard Schulz, told Courthouse News in an interview that WTMJ had been “hyping the story for days.”
Schulz said he sent a “forceful” email to Koebel, but received no response.
The attorney said that Dumas is licensed by Wisconsin and is qualified to work as a bus driver.
Dumas says in her complaint that the bus company, Durham School Services, had her fill out an application that “specifically requested in writing to only reveal past felony convictions and exclude misdemeanors.”
Her 7-year-old prostitution conviction is a misdemeanor and does not “threaten the safety of the children,” Dumas says in her complaint.
Dumas seeks damages for intentional interference with contract, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Schulz said a psychotherapist diagnosed his client with post-traumatic stress disorder and that she fears going out in public because she is afraid of being recognized.
She is exhibiting “significant distress resulting in impairments in social and other important functions,” Schulz said, reading from the psychotherapist’s report.
Dumas does not allege defamation. Court records confirm the 2005 misdemeanor conviction.
She says in the complaint: “Reasonable investigative journalism does not include ambushing an unofficial individual not guilty of any wrongdoing.”
Schulz said Koebel picked on the “little” or “unofficial” people.
The complaint states that Koebel “demonstrated repeated ethical violations” and used “checkbook” journalism in search of ” a larger TV audience.”