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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Former Editor Raps AP Over Her Dismissal

(CN) - A former Associated Press editor sued the news organization and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, who fired her and two others over an erroneous October 2013 article about then-Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.

In a lawsuit filed in the Richmond, Va. circuit court, Dena Potter charges Carroll acted with actual malice and made false statements about her after the AP was forced to retract a report that McAuliffe had lied to federal investigators in a death benefits fraud case.

The AP also fired Bob Lewis, the reporter who wrote the story, and an Atlanta-based editor, Norman Gomlak.

Potter's complaint says on the day the erroneous story was sent out on the wire, she was working with a group of AP reporters on coverage of a shooting at the federal courthouse in Wheeling, W. Va.

The former editor says she first learned of the McAuliffe story - though not the details - when she received a late afternoon call from Lewis, a veteran political reporter with the news service. Potter, the news editor for Virginia and West Virginia, says she explained to Lewis that she was tied up with the courthouse shooting story and arranged for him to work with Gomlak.

Later that night, Potters says, Lewis received a tip from the campaign of Ken Cuccinelli, McAuliffe's Republican opponent, that pointed him to a federal document in which someone identified only as "T.M." is described as having lied to investigators.

Potter says Lewis had previously verified that McAuliffe was an investor in the scheme - thought it later turned out he was only a passive investor -- and that the journalists agreed that with only a month to go before the election, any story about the candidate's involvement in a federal criminal case "was a very important story that required attention."

She says that Lewis followed up on the tip by attempting to confirm it with a McAuliffe campaign representative, but couldn't reach anyone for comment.

But she says, "Given that Lewis had confirmed that the "T.M." listed earlier in the indictment as an investor was in fact McAuliffe, and there was no indication in the indictment that the "T.M." accused of lying was a different person ... Lewis understood that the "T.M." who was accused of lying to investigators was in fact McAuliffe."

There was only one problem, Potter says: "Lewis' understanding was incorrect; the 'T.M.' accused of lying to federal investigators was not McAuliffe."

Assuming the story was correct, Lewis and Gomlak proceeded to publish it as the lead news piece on APNewsNow.

Potter says Gomlak then called her to say that the story was ready to be published on the wire. Though Potter was still occupied with the courthouse shooting in Wheeling, she says volunteered to publish the news alert herself.

Fifteen minutes after publication, Lewis received a statement from McAuliffe's campaign office denying that the "T.M." accused of lying in the indictment was in fact McAuliffe.

After a conference call, Potter, Gomlak, Lewis and South Regional News Editor Lisa Marie Pane decided to pull the story immediately. Potter assisted Gomlak in pulling the piece, and by 11:23 pm, the corrected story had been uploaded to the wire.

Potter says Carroll held her personally responsible for the episode, and thereafter made comments to several third parties disparaging her professional abilities, and "imputing to Potter an unfitness to perform the duties of a news editor and an unfitness to perform the duties of her employment with AP."

Potter claims "Carroll was highly motivated to make and continue to make false statements of fact, that is ... attempting to justify her unjustifiable decision to fire Potter."

Potter says she acted just as any editor would have under the circumstances.

"Potter trusted that Gomlak and Lewis had the facts right, as was and would be the common, normal, and customary procedure and standard within AP," the complaint says.

"Potter did not attempt any separate and distinct verification of the story that Gomlak and Lewis had prepared for placement 'on the wire,'" the court documents continue.

"Contrary to the false and defamatory statements of Carroll at a later time, no policy, practice, procedure, or standard of AP suggested or required that Potter many any attempt under these facts."

The former editor also took issue with Carroll's alleged assertion that there were "'no employees involved in something like'" what Potter was involved with on October 9, 2013, 'who did not leave the company.'"

"In fact," Potter says, "far more serious errors, such as the error with regard to AP's erroneous identification of the Newtown shooter, did not result in anyone leaving AP."

Potter seeks $950,000 in compensatory and punitive damages and court costs.

She is represented by David Simonsen Jr. and Vickey Verwey of Richmond, Va.

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