Ex-Detroit Lighting CEO Sues Station for Libel

     (CN) — The former head of Detroit’s lighting authority says a Channel 7 report defamed him by suggesting he engaged in unethical business deals and his $250,000 severance check was meant to buy his silence.
     Odis Jones, former CEO of the Detroit Public Lighting Authority, abruptly resigned in February “to pursue other opportunities.” He was paid a $250,000 severance, on top of $20,000 he received just months earlier as a performance bonus.
     As CEO of the Detroit PLA, Jones successfully oversaw the installation of approximately 60,000 street lights in the city by acquiring critical funding at favorable interest rates, even while the city itself was going through bankruptcy at the time.
     Mayor Mike Duggan praised his tenure at the PLA, and Jones says his efforts were lauded by Time Magazine, Fortune Magazine and the New York Times as a prime example of effective governance.
     But shortly after his departure, WXYZ-TV Channel 7 filed a Freedom of Information Act request that turned up an internal investigation of Jones’ private business activities analyzing whether his company, MVP Capital Ventures, engaged in a conflict of interest.
     The ethical investigation was prompted by two PLA former employees’ allegations that they were fired for objecting to Jones’ business ventures.
     The employees claimed that Jones “engineered a severance payment to his business partner Adam Troy as payment for a business debt owed by Jones to Troy,” according to court records.
     Troy, who also worked as an executive at the PLA, was given a $58,000 severance after less than a year on the job.
     The employees who sued for wrongful termination were also given big severance packages of $123,000 and $77,000 to drop their claims – again, while the city was going through bankruptcy proceedings.
     PLA General Counsel Tifani Sadek’s 13-page report with 26 exhibits absolved Jones of any wrongdoing, Jones claims in a defamation lawsuit filed Friday against Scripps Media, the owner of Channel 7.
     But “despite that fact that the documents produced by the Detroit PLA and the Detroit PLA Counsel Investigation exonerated Odis Jones from the false allegations in the draft severance complaints, and did so on the basis of a carefully compiled factual compilation prepared by qualified and unbiased counsel, Channel 7 and reporter Ronnie Dahl set out to destroy the reputation of Odis Jones in a series of televised reports under the pathetic, patently misleading and ill-conceived banner ‘Secret Severances,'” the complaint states.
     The report aired by Channel 7 in late April explicitly identifies Jones as “he” who “violated the law,” by showing his picture at the same time as making this statement, Jones claims.
     It suggests that PLA executives have been “cashing out” with severance deals intended to “buy their silence,” his lawsuit alleges.
     “In its broadcasts, Channel 7 is obviously proud of its chosen contemptible and unimaginative title of ‘Secret Severances’ for its incendiary presentations defaming Odis Jones. The ‘Secret Severances’ title is splashed across the headlines of Ronnie Dahl’s reports, with the video entry for each of the reports showing this sensationalistic but patently false title,” the complaint states.
     Jones says his quarter-million severance figure was the amount written into his employment agreement and there is nothing to support Channel 7’s claim that the lump sum was given to keep him quiet.
     Channel 7’s report however, claims that Jones’ employment contract promised no severance if he resigned. It suggested that if the PLA truly “regret[ed]” Jones’ decision to leave — as it stated in a press release — it would not be paying him handsomely to leave.
     Jones vigorously objects to this characterization of his resignation, saying, “Channel 7 and Dahl cannot and do not bother to produce the documents and approvals which refute their loathsome and false reporting directly defaming Odis Jones directly and by implication. In its malicious zeal, Channel 7 takes sides and actively seeks to destroy the reputation of Odis Jones for the benefit of his adversaries.”
     Jones seeks punitive damages for defamation, tortious interference, false light invasion of privacy and emotional distress. He is represented by R. Bradley Lambert with Lambert & Lambert in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
     Neither Scripps Media nor Dahl immediately returned requests for comment Monday.
     PLA is a state-created authority responsible for maintaining the street-light infrastructure in Detroit. When it began its work, about 40 percent of street lights in the city were not functioning, according to PLA’s website.
     The authority says it is on track to complete relighting Detroit with 65,000 street lights by the end of this year.

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