NASHVILLE (CN) – A Nashville General Sessions judge claims a TV reporter defamed him by falsely reporting that he was the subject of an “ethics investigation,” in a vendetta set off by the judge’s refusal to dismiss a parking ticket.
Daniel B. Eisenstein sued WTVF-TV, News Channel 5 Network, Landmark Media Enterprises, station manager Lyn Plantinga, news director Sandy Boonstra, and reporter Phil Williams, in Davidson County Court.
Eisenstein claims that on June 3, 2010 the traffic court clerk got a letter from a captain at the Metropolitan Police Department asking that a parking ticket be dismissed for Williams, without a hearing.
Williams allegedly had parked in a media parking zone/loading zone in a car not identified as a media vehicle, and got two tickets for illegal parking.
The captain asked that one of the tickets be dismissed, Eisenstein says.
The judge says this came a year after Nashville Mayor Karl Dean had sent a memo warning metro employees not to give preferential treatment to anyone by dismissing traffic citations without proper procedure.
In fact, Williams himself had criticized the General Sessions Court and Traffic Court Clerk’s office in 2006 “investigative reports … over the manner traffic and parking tickers were administered,” one of which was titled, “It Appears That Somebody Knows Somebody,” Eisenstein says.
“The concern expressed by defendant, Phil Williams in this report was that people who knew people in the police department and possibly other places could have parking tickets or other traffic infractions dismissed without appearing in open court,” the complaint states.
“The report began as follows: ‘An exclusive News Channel 5 investigation uncovers what some might call the ticket fix. Others call it wrong. Our investigation discovered that if you’ve ever paid a parking ticket, it may just be because you don’t know the right people.'”
But when Williams was ticketed, Eisenstein says, the reporter apparently thought he knew the right people and got angry when Eisenstein decided to hold a hearing on the tickets – and on what the judge calls the “highly irregular and unique” request from the police department for a dismissal without a hearing.
Because of the “multiple reports” on Channel 5 about the handling of traffic tickets, including a June 21, 2010 Channel 5 report calling for “tighter controls over the way Metro handles speeding and parking tickets,” the Traffic Court Clerk’s office asked Eisenstein how to respond to the police captain’s June 3 letter, the judge says. Eisenstein says the clerk’s office asked him because he is presiding judge, and because the police captain’s request appeared to violate the mayor’s policy.
So, Eisenstein says, “It was decided that a court hearing was required to determine how and why the request contained in the June 3, 2010 letter was made …”
This hearing was held on June 23, 2010 – before the hearing on Williams’ parking tickets.
Eisenstein presided over the June 23 hearing on “the lawfulness and propriety of the request from the Metropolitan Police Department that one (1) of the defendants, Williams’ parking tickets be dismissed without an open court hearing. The defendant, Phil Williams was not a party to the hearing on June 23, 2010 as it was being conducted to determine the lawfulness and propriety of conduct by individuals employed by the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County,” Eisenstein says.
Eisenstein decided that “any question about the merits” of Williams’ two tickets should be handled by the General Sessions Judge regularly scheduled to preside over the traffic docket. But Eisenstein “reserved all other matters,” including the propriety of the captain’s letter.
Williams paid for both tickets before his hearing came, the judge says.
“It is clear from the events which occurred following the payment of these tickets that the defendant, Phil Williams took great umbrage because an inquiry was conducted into matters related to the issuance of parking tickets to him,” Eisenstein says.
“More specifically, the defendant, Williams apparently concluded the plaintiff, Eisenstein had conducted the inquiry into actions of the Metropolitan Police Department regarding his parking tickets in an effort to embarrass him rather than an effort to pursue some legitimate objective. And as a consequence of this conclusion, the defendant, Phil Williams decided to conduct an investigation of the plaintiff, Eisenstein not as a matter of legitimate news gathering activities but instead of retaliation for what he concluded was an intentional and unwarranted affront to his reputation.”
The judge claims that in June and July 2010, with “no source or legitimate factual basis to believe the plaintiff, Eisenstein had engaged in some sort of official or other misconduct,” Williams, “using his investigative reporting team and the funding and other resources of the defendants WTFV-TV and Landmark Media Enterprises LLC, began to investigate all aspects of the plaintiff, Eisenstein’s official duties as a General Session Judge.”
Eisenstein says that “Williams’ investigation was motivated purely by animosity toward the plaintiff, Eisenstein and the desire to retaliate against him.”
On July 19, 2010, Williams broadcast a news story about Eisenstein, called “Is Another Nashville Judge Under Ethics Investigation?”
Eisenstein says, “The answer to the defendants’ question was no, and the defendants knew this or had obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of any assertion that the Court of Judiciary of Tennessee was conducting an investigation of the plaintiff, Eisenstein’s judicial conduct of any respect.”
Eisenstein claims that Williams or someone on his crew tried to make appear as though an investigation were occurring by taking a recording of the June 23 hearing to the Court Judiciary of Tennessee.
“On information and belief, the Court of Judiciary of Tennessee took the position if the defendant, Phil Williams wanted an investigation to be commenced a complaint needed to be filed along with any information supporting the complaint. The defendant, Phil Williams never filed a complaint but nonetheless asserted the plaintiff Eisenstein ‘was under investigation’ when he knew or had obvious reasons to know he was not,” the judge says.
Eisenstein claims Williams also tried to dig up dirt on the Davidson County Mental Health Court and the Davidson County Mental Health Court Foundation, entities Eisenstein developed and organized and in which he takes great pride.
Eisenstein claims Williams came up empty-handed, and was provided with letters and documentation to prove the legitimacy of the foundation, but Williams went ahead and broadcast another false and malicious report, called “Judge Uses Unlicensed Psychologist for Mentally Ill.”
“Again, the defendants knew the statements contained in the February 28, 2011 news story were false or had obvious reasons to doubt the accuracy of the story prior to broadcast because the plaintiff Eisenstein presented them with the true facts prior to the time the broadcast occurred,” the judge says.
Among other things, the judge says, the broadcast suggested that Eisenstein had ordered people to take psychiatric medications and had hired an unlicensed independent contractor to perform psychological services.
Eisenstein says he never did anything of the sort.
Eisenstein says the defendants have refused his requests to apologize for the broadcasts.
The judge adds: “To this day, the defendant Phil Williams continues his effort to broadcast false and libelous matters to harm the plaintiff, Eisenstein’s reputation or matters which cast him in a false light before the public. Again, the plaintiff, Williams is not motivated by legitimate news gathering activities. The defendant, Phil Williams is planning to broadcast more false reports about the plaintiff, Eisenstein to continue his campaign of retaliation against him.”
Eisenstein seeks punitive damages for libel and privacy invasion.
He is represented by Robert DeLaney with Tune, Entrekin & White.