Lawyer: Publisher pressured top aide to choose sides

Publisher Robert J. Hall, who testified Friday in the firing of editor Marimow. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff
Publisher Robert J. Hall, who testified Friday in the firing of editor Marimow. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff
Posted: November 17, 2013

Inquirer publisher Robert J. Hall last month described the war among the newspaper's owners as "the Allies vs. the Axis powers" and pressed his top assistant to choose sides, a lawyer for one faction asserted in court Friday.

Lawyer Joseph Podraza said Hall had chosen to align himself with co-owner George E. Norcross III and urged associate publisher Michael Lorenca to also declare an allegiance.

"No one can be Switzerland," the lawyer said Hall told Lorenca.

Hall said he did not remember his exact words, but he did not deny the exchange.

"I clearly told Mr. Lorenca that I agreed with Mr. Norcross, and I told him that he couldn't be neutral, because he was wavering back and forth," Hall testified.

His comments emerged on the third day of testimony before Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Patricia McInerney in the lawsuit by Norcross' rivals, Lewis Katz and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, to overturn the firing of Inquirer editor William K. Marimow.

Hall did not explain which of the six owners of parent company Interstate General Media might have represented the World War II Axis led by Nazi Germany and which were the Allies. Podraza, who represents Katz and Lenfest, didn't ask.

Podraza read the quotes aloud from notes, but did not say where they came from. Lorenca has not testified and could not be reached for comment Friday night.

Lorenca announced his resignation Oct. 30, effective at the end of this month. He cited the ongoing turmoil at the company as one reason he accepted another job.

On Thursday, McInerney denied Katz and Lenfest's request to remove Hall because, they said, his contract had expired. She has not ruled on their request to reinstate Marimow. They claim that Hall had no authority to fire the editor because Katz, who with Norcross makes up the operating committee that has authority for major company decisions, had not agreed to it.

The judge's ruling followed an admission by Katz, who testified Thursday, that he must have spoken with Hall and agreed to let him stay on until Dec. 31. Katz was confronted with a copy of a May 17 e-mail that Hall had written to Lorenca and several of the owners describing the conversation.

Katz and Lenfest had been arguing that Hall had no current contract and therefore could not have fired Marimow because he was not employed as publisher.

While testifying Friday, Hall said that last year he reappointed Michael Days as editor of the Philadelphia Daily News without having to get the managing partners to sign off - an indication he had the right to hire and fire top editorial employees.

Hall testified in detail that Marimow was slow in implementing the company's strategy for more suburban news coverage in The Inquirer and refused to fire five editors. Asked about Marimow's claim that Hall had warned the editor upon his hiring in 2012 that he would be watching him, Hall said he had "no personal animosity" for Marimow and was focused on improving the paper.

For a little more than half of his 90 minutes on the stand, Hall was under sustained attack by Katz's legal team, which in cross-examination tried to paint the publisher as an agent of Norcross.

Hall has cited a July 8 legal opinion he obtained, prepared by the firm Cozen O'Connor, stating that as publisher he had the right to fire Marimow without any permission from the operating committee or any owners. A clause in the partnership agreement says no owner will interfere with or influence "editorial policies or decisions" of the newsrooms.

Norcross, Hall testified, chose Cozen to issue an opinion on the noninterference clause. Under questioning, the publisher said he did not inform Katz or Lenfest of the firm's hiring, and also did not tell them about or send them a copy of the opinion. Hall said that he spoke with Norcross about the opinion and that Norcross had a copy.

Katz's lawyers said that Cozen had done business with Norcross' New Jersey insurance firm but did not disclose a potential conflict of interest to the company.

Hall said he could not remember whether he had seen an invoice for the opinion and had no idea much it cost.

"Was it more than $10?" Podraza asked him. Hall said he could not recall.

The hearing is to resume Wednesday, with Norcross on the witness stand. He and three other owners have accused Katz and Lenfest of breaching their partnership agreement by meddling in newsroom affairs, which they say includes their effort to block Marimow's ouster.


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

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