Las Vegas Sun

December 5, 2019

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In suit involving agreement with the Sun, R-J asks court to seal arbitration results

Accusing the Las Vegas Review-Journal of not holding itself to the standards of transparency it demands of other community institutions, an attorney for the Las Vegas Sun criticized the R-J for trying to avoid revealing information related to a court dispute between the two newspapers.

At issue is a motion filed Friday by the R-J to seal details from an arbitration ruling in favor of the Sun earlier this year. Sun attorney Leif Reid said that in trying to keep the results of the arbitration under wraps, the R-J contradicted the fundamental mission of any newspaper. The motion was the latest of at least six attempts by the R-J to ensure the public wouldn’t see information from the arbitration, he said.

“There’s a contrast between the position (the R-J) has been taking for weeks now and their history with pursuing open disclosure in court,” Reid said. “They don’t want the public to know they lost an arbitration.”

The R-J has taken aggressive legal actions in recent years to force such organizations as Metro Police and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to release documents.

In April, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that Metro had to start handing over documents, including body camera footage, from the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip.

The R-J also prevailed on obtaining access to records that eventually helped lead to criminal charges being filed this year against a handful of LVCVA executives over an alleged airline gift card scandal.

But since the arbitration ruling, which came in a lawsuit over a joint operating agreement (JOA) between the two newspapers, the R-J has resisted the release of information in the case and complained about the presence of a Sun reporter during hearings on the matter.

In contrast, Sun lawyers want most of the information from the arbitration ruling to be made public. Reid said he would argue against the R-J’s latest motion during a hearing Wednesday in Clark County District Court.

During a hearing on Oct. 22, a Sun lawyer said the R-J had entered into agreements worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to exchange advertising space for tickets to sporting events, meet-and-greets, and billboard ad space.

The arbitrator found that the R-J’s handling of such agreements — and the fact that the Sun hasn’t been able to audit R-J financial records — violated the JOA, the Sun’s lawyers noted while asking the judge to affirm the ruling.

The Sun has sent a reporter to hearings in the case and has reported several details from the arbitration ruling. The district court hearings are open to the public.

But Randall Jones, one of the R-J’s lawyers, contended during a Nov. 6 hearing that advertising information was not supposed to be made public, even though it came out in an open courtroom in late October.

“(The Sun) had a reporter sitting in the courtroom,” Jones said. “We haven’t had another reporter from the Sun in the courtroom, I don’t believe, since then.”

Despite Jones’ assertion, a Sun reporter did attend a later hearing. The Sun also plans to assign a reporter to cover the hearing Wednesday.

During the Nov. 6 hearing, Sun attorney Jordan Smith said the Sun had no problem with the R-J trying to withhold information that was “legitimately confidential.”

“But you can’t turn something that’s not confidential, say is talked about remotely in arbitration, and then … claim the public doesn’t have the right to know that anymore,” Smith said.

The R-J has asked Clark County District Judge Timothy Williams to take a fresh look at the arbitrator’s ruling and/or vacate the arbitrator’s multiple findings that the R-J violated the JOA.

Sun lawyers contend that most of what the arbitrator ruled was correct and should be affirmed.

The JOA structure was created under the Newspaper Preservation Act, approved by Congress in the 1970s. That legislation provides limited antitrust protection for newspapers to combine business functions while remaining editorially independent.

The Sun’s position in court is that the arbitrator properly ruled in favor of the Sun when he found the R-J violated the JOA in a number of ways, including accounting practices that eliminated profit sharing payments to the Sun, charging disallowed advertising and promotional efforts against the JOA and blocking the Sun’s contractually defined right to audit the R-J to ensure JOA compliance.