Inquirer owners' hearing ends with no ruling

All eyes were on Interstate General Media co-owner George E. Norcross III (right) as he met with a group of lawyers and publisher Robert J. Hall (center) during the hearing.
All eyes were on Interstate General Media co-owner George E. Norcross III (right) as he met with a group of lawyers and publisher Robert J. Hall (center) during the hearing. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 22, 2013

A four-day Common Pleas Court hearing over the firing of Inquirer editor William K. Marimow ended Wednesday without a decision and after the newspaper's feuding co-owners failed to reach a settlement despite talks brokered by the judge.

Following closing arguments in her City Hall courtroom and more than three hours of negotiations in her chambers, Judge Patricia A. McInerney finished the proceedings without indicating when she would rule on a request to reinstate the editor.

Earlier, the judge said talks to end the legal standoff between factions led by Lewis Katz and George E. Norcross III had been fruitless.

"I appreciate everybody's hard work, but unfortunately, you were not able to resolve anything," McInerney said in open court.

According to two people familiar with the negotiations, the sides were not discussing buyout terms, but rather a working arrangement that would let Katz and Norcross continue as the managing partners of parent company Interstate General Media but would more clearly define their powers and limits.

It was not clear how any such deal might affect Marimow, who was fired Oct. 7 by publisher Robert J. Hall with the support of Norcross and over the objections of Katz.

Norcross had been expected testify Wednesday, but his lawyers decided not to call him.

"The case that was made by the plaintiffs demonstrated that Bob Hall acted properly," Norcross said when asked after court why he chose not to testify.

"There was nothing more to be said," added Marc Sonnenfeld, a lawyer representing IGM.

McInerney then called the partners and their lawyers to her chambers a little after 10 a.m., to try, she said, to resolve the dispute that led to Marimow's ouster and brought into view a long-simmering internal battle for control of the newspaper.

For three hours, they shuttled in and out of the back room.

Katz and his ally among the partners, IGM chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, want an injunction to overturn the editor's firing, which they said violated the partnership agreement. Norcross has countersued, claiming Katz breached the same contract by meddling in newsroom matters.

McInerney last week denied a request by Katz and Lenfest to remove Hall as publisher. Katz and Lenfest had argued that the publisher's contract had expired Aug. 31. The judge's ruling followed an admission by Katz during testimony last Thursday that he must have spoken with Hall and agreed to let him stay on until Dec. 31.

As managing partners of IGM, Katz and Norcross were to share authority over operational decisions at The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and The arrangement effectively gave each man veto power over major decisions.

All the co-owners also pledged not to interfere in editorial matters, and that promise was written into the agreement forming the company.

Katz, who made millions developing and operating parking lots, has argued that he was not given the chance to block Marimow's dismissal, which he says is his right under the partnership agreement. He also accused Norcross, an insurance company owner and prominent New Jersey Democratic leader, of tightening his control over the company, with Hall as his agent.

Those aligned with Norcross say the partnership contract made it clear that Hall alone had the authority to fire Marimow because of the noninterference clause.

"If only the management [committee] can remove the editor, then management has the ability to control or influence news content," Robert Heim, an attorney for Norcross, said during closing arguments.

The violation of Katz's voting rights is enough to merit an order reinstating Marimow, argued Joseph Podraza, lawyer for Katz and Lenfest.

Such an order, he said, would send the message "there are rights and when one faction or one group is excluded, that causes fundamental damage to the institution."

Hall said he fired Marimow after months of resistance to changes in The Inquirer suggested by market research. Marimow also refused to fire senior newsroom staff members Hall wanted removed.

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

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