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Ex-publisher sues Texas daily.

Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram president and publisher Richard L. Connor claims in two lawsuits that he was fired without cause from the paper last November -- four months before the paper announced his departure on Valentine's Day

In the lawsuits filed in federal and Texas courts, Connor blames the dismissal on colleagues at the Star-Telegram and executives of the paper's corporate parents, Capital Cities/ABC and the Walt Disney Co.

"With premeditated forethought and outright malice, Connor's immediate supervisor (Phil Meek, senior vice president of ABC and president of ABC's publishing group) and his cohorts . . . individually and in concert with each other have systematically tarnished Connor's reputation," states the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Wichita Falls.

"A stellar 29-year career, 23 years with Capital Cities, suddenly became a torrent of rumors, innuendos, things left unsaid and outright lies. Connor was, for the first time ever, accused of poor management, excessive attention to profits, ineffective leadership and a lack of foresight," the suit adds.

Named as defendants in the federal lawsuit are Meek; the Walt Disney Co.; Capital Cities/ABC Inc.; and ABC President Robert A. Iger.

In the federal lawsuit, Connor is seeking damages for fraud, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, interference with contract and in just termination of an implied contract.

In a shot at Disney's top management, Connor's lawsuits say the damages he is seeking "do not exceed the severance package paid to (recently resigned Disney president) Michael Ovitz after his unsuccessful year -- reportedly at least $90 million."

Spokesmen for those named in both lawsuits refused to comment on the suits, citing company policy.

As he was filing that lawsuit -- and an almost identical suit filed in Tarrant County (Texas) District Court against the Star-Telegram itself and three of its top executives -- Connor was also preparing a bid to buy the Star-Telegram. In January, Disney announced it was selling the newspapers that came with its 1995 purchase of Capital Cities/ABC Inc.

Connor told his former paper that he was working with one unnamed partner to make an offer for the Star-Telegram.

"I have a partner, but I can't disclose his name now. We're out working hard, trying to raise money. But I would consider us a real long shot," Connor was quoted as saying in a Star-Telegram story written by Laura Vozzella, with contributions from staff writers Bob Mahlburg, Barry Shlachter and Mitchell Schnurman.

Connor's emergence as a possible buyer for the newspaper is only the latest twist in what has been an undeniably action-packed year at the Star-Telegram.

The newspaper's competition with A.H. Belo's Dallas Morning News heated up considerably last year when the News redoubled its efforts in suburban northeast Tarrant County by creating the Arlington Morning News as a separate daily.

Even as the Star-Telegram was fighting outside competition, however, it was apparently rent with internal power struggles.

In a still-mysterious episode, Debbie Price remained listed on the masthead as executive editor for months after she was no longer performing those duties.

It was alleged last summer by Price's attorney that she was fired by Connor. But management sources said she quit after she was told she was being demoted.

Price had been handpicked as executive editor by Connor in 1993. Prior to that, she was a columnist for the paper.

Price's elevation to the number one editing slot had reportedly raised some eyebrows among reporters and editors at the paper, with many viewing her as an accomplished journalist who lacked the management experience necessary to run the editorial side of the paper.

But Connor reportedly enjoyed a close working relationship with Price until her departure.

Connor's lawsuit says that in May 1996 -- about the time Price left the paper -- Phil Meek "arrived in Fort Worth unexpectedly and told Connor he wanted to discuss a personnel matter relating to an employee who worked under Connor. "At that meeting, the suit says, Meek fired Connor.

However, court documents contend, the dismissal was quickly reversed, and Connor was "reinstated" as publisher -- only to be "demoted" by Meek in August, and finally, in November, given a choice to resign or be fired.

Connor's lawsuits portray a newspaper where the corporate back stabbing can be traced back from virtually the moment Connor was named president and publisher in July 1986.

Connor had made his reputation in Cap Cities first as an editor during the difficult labor strike at the Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich., and then as publisher of the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. When Connor came to the Times Leader in January 1979, the paper was still in the middle of a violent strike. In the lawsuit, Connor says he received "numerous death threats."

According to Connor's account in the lawsuit, Connor won the top Star-Telegram job over Robert Woodworth, who at the time was the paper's president, and Wesley Turner, then an advertising executive. (On Feb. 14, the newspaper announced Turner had succeeded Connor as president and publisher.) Both Woodworth and Turner were reassigned to Cap Cities' papers in Kansas City, the lawsuit says, and "began expressing doubts as to whether Mr. Connor could succeed at the Star-Telegram and indicating they would soon be returning to Fort Worth to run the Star-Telegram."

For more than a decade, however, Connor's tenure was a success, the lawsuit says. The paper "thrived and prospered," the lawsuit says, achieving record profits in the last two years.

Connor prospered, too: By the time he departed the publisher's job, Connor was making more than $800,000 annually in salary and bonuses, according to a Star-Telegram article quoting his law office. Connor's attorney, Frank L. Branson, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

When Meek fired Connor last May, however, things got rough in the executives suites in Fort Worth and at ABC Inc. headquarters in New York City, the lawsuit indicates.

In June, Connor lashed back at Meek and, the lawsuit says, "informed executives of Capital Cities/ABC and a representative of the Disney Corporation, including ABC President Robert Iger and the top executive in human resources for ABC, Jeffrey Rosen, of Meek's interference in the operation of the Star-Telegram and of Meek's disorganized, discriminatory, and malicious management style."

In August, the lawsuit says, Meek struck back and "demoted" Connor while promoting less senior and accomplished publishing group executives.

At the time, the lawsuit says, Connor was contemplating buying a ranch with a 3,325-square-foot house on 127 acres.

Concerned about the shots from Meek, the lawsuit says, "Connor directly asked his superiors if his position with the company was stable . . . [and] was told that his position with the company was solid and that he could proceed with the purchase of the home and the land."

The ranch cost about $1 million and Connor obtained a mortgage of about $599,000 to make the purchase, the Star-Telegram reported.

In November, however, Robert Woodworth -- now ABC's senior vice president/publishing group for metro papers -- told Connor that the company intended to fire him again, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit,Woodworth gave Connor a weekend to make a choice: Step down and accept a severance package or "simply pack up his office and get out."

Connor says he did not resign. He also stopped going to the newspaper, although he contributed a weekly column and, his lawyer says, represented the paper at public events as recently as the beginning of February.

The lawsuit states that "Connor did not opt to resign from the company and has recently learned of his firing by Capital Cities by reading in the Star-Telegram the name of his replacement."

In the state lawsuit, Connor names his replacement, Wesley R. Turner, as a defendant along with Star-Telegram Operating Ltd.; Star-Telegram Newspaper Inc.; Robert Woodworth; and Wanda Wilkins, the paper's director of human resources.

The Texas lawsuit also demands extensive documents from the newspaper, including everything related to the Star-Telegram's competition with the Dallas Morning News.

Connor is also demanding "all documentation in which the value of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is reflected or estimated for the years 1986-1996, particularly for the purpose of accepting offers for sale of the Star-Telegram when it was purchased by ABC as a part of Capital Cities and at the time that Disney purchased ABC, and at the current time."

Connor's federal lawsuit was filed in Wichita Falls, Texas -- some 75 miles from Fort Worth -- because the former publisher is well-known in the area for his cutting horse activities, his attorney said in the Star-Telegram article.

At cutting horse shows, a horse and rider separate one cow from a herd and keep it away with maneuvers that shadow the cow's movements. There are some 14,000 sanctioned cutting horse events held annually, said a spokesman for the National Cutting Horse Association in Fort Worth.
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Title Annotation:Richard L. Connor in dispute with Fort Worth Star-Telegram over firing
Author:Fitzgerald, Mark
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Mar 15, 1997
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