Las Vegas Sun

February 14, 2016

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Jon Ralston:

Lawyers take character assassination to high court

I wish this were an April Fool’s joke. It’s not.

Instead, this is an ongoing, outrageous, almost inconceivable bit of legal thuggery by leeching lawyers who seem determined to subvert basic principles of fairness while compromising the practice of journalism.

I do not exaggerate.

Attorneys who have attacked the integrity of a reporter through insinuations and fabrications in a legal document have now asked the state Supreme Court to intervene to set a precedent that will have long-term and inimical ramifications. The precedent: That lawyers hoping to impede the news gathering process can make unsupportable allegations about a journalist and force him or her to answer questions without any foundation, simply to raise the specter of impropriety.

If the state Supreme Court allows this, the justices will have codified character assassination and undermined any protection journalists have from willy nilly invasions of privacy. I’d call this a fishing expedition, but these are legal anglers dropping their line in a lake they know has no fish.

(I have written about this before: here and here.)

If I seem angry, it’s because I am. This is not about me but it might as well be.

My “Face to Face” producer, Dana Gentry, for many years, has been doing hard-hitting, probing pieces on hard-money lender Jeff Guinn’s business practices — practices that have resulted in lawsuits by investors who have accused him of engaging in fraudulent transactions designed to protect him, his family and close friends.

Gentry consistently has sought comment from Guinn and his lawyers, who have refused. But not once — not once! — after her reports were aired, many times on “Face to Face,” have the attorneys, led by John Bailey, demanded a correction or retraction.

So after all this time and silence, last year, Guinn, through his legal team, tried to force Gentry to answer questions about her private life by subpoenaing records that they falsely claim they have “good reason” to believe exist that would show she is venal and biased. And this is the key point: They have presented not one bit of evidence to bolster their predicate for asking the questions.

Why? Because there is none.

What’s more, nothing in their legal efforts furthers Guinn’s defense against the serious charges filed in civil documents and that are the subject of law enforcement probes. This is an attempt to sully Gentry’s reputation. Period.

So why, you might ask, doesn’t Gentry simply answer the questions and show that there is nothing there? Therein lies the much broader implications of this case and explains why every journalist in this state — and others who might one day be involved in a court case where one side is represented by unscrupulous lawyers — should be incensed.

It was the lack of evidence that caused District Judge Allan Earl to quash the subpoena last year, saying, “If the defendants can prove to me in a private evidentiary hearing that some of this information is absolutely necessary, I’ll reconsider it. But when news gatherers are threatened with things that could easily destroy their credibility, I’m concerned.”

So all they had to do was present evidence to Earl and Gentry would have been forced to answer. Sounds reasonable, right?

But they did not do so. Why?

“The answer to this question is as simple as it is damning: the Petitioners had no evidence to present because their charges of journalistic corruption on the part of Ms. Gentry were fabricated,” wrote Don Campbell, my attorney and Gentry’s, in an answer to the high court filed last week.

Exactly.

So instead of an evidentiary hearing, the lawyers are trying for an extraordinary writ from the high court. They are trying a “stratagem (that) comes as no surprise to Ms. Gentry, because she knows what the Petitioners know,” Campbell wrote, “that Petitioners have no evidence to support their toxic claims of journalistic corruption.” And this: “The true state of the record, however, is that Ms. Gentry’s integrity as a journalist has been gratuitously smeared in the Counterclaim in retaliation for her production of news stories which the Petitioners found unflattering.”

This is nothing short of frightening.

And, as Campbell noted, what is even more pernicious is this: “If this Court were to grant this petition in absence of any evidence supporting a demonstrable claim of need, it would impose an enormous disincentive upon journalists to vigorously pursue stories in their efforts to further public interest and debate of controversial subjects.”

Indeed.

I know the media are not held in high regard these days. But this is about an abuse of the legal system by a man and his legal horses out to trample the hard-earned reputation of a veteran journalist. If it doesn’t bother you, it should. If you don’t voice your outrage — I’m especially talking to you, fellow Fourth Estaters — you have only yourself to blame for the consequences.

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