Thursday, January 06, 2000

Ex-Chiquita lawyer says being informant was costly


Ventura blames former reporter, Enquirer, Gannett

BY DAN HORN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        George Ventura says he'd never even spoken to a reporter until he responded to an Internet message from The Cincinnati Enquirer seeking information about Chiquita Brands International Inc.

        Within two years, he says, his contact with the newspaper cost him his career, his life savings and his reputation.

        In a first-person account published this month in Brill's Content magazine, Mr. Ventura accused the newspaper of failing to keep a promise to protect his identity as a source of information.

        The article — Mr. Ventura's first extensive comment about the Chiquita case — describes former Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher as a “Judas of journalism” for identifying him in court.

        But it also argues that the newspaper and its parent company, Gannett, are just as responsible.

        “I think ultimately the responsibility lies at the feet of The Enquirer and Gannett,” Mr. Ventura wrote in the article.

        Enquirer publisher Harry Whipple said Mr. Ventura's claim is “without merit” and denied the paper or any current employees revealed sources.

        He would not discuss Mr. Gallagher, who was fired by the paper in 1998.

        Mr. Ventura's article in Brill's Content comes about six months after he pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor charges of helping to steal voice-mail messages from Chiquita executives.

        The charges stem from an investigation that was launched in 1998 after the Enquirer published articles about Chiquita's business practices.

        The articles quoted extensively from voice-mail messages between Chiquita executives.

        The newspaper later renounced the articles in three front-page apologies and agreed to pay Chiquita more than $10 million. The apologies stated that Mr. Gallagher had been fired for deceiving his editors about how he obtained the voice-mail messages.

        Months later, Mr. Gallagher named Mr. Ventura as a source for the articles and pleaded guilty to two charges of illegally accessing Chiquita's voice-mail system.

        Another Enquirer reporter, Cameron McWhirter, co-wrote the articles with Mr. Gallagher. He was not charged with a crime, however, and has said he never revealed a source.

        In his article in Brill's Content, a magazine that focuses on media issues and ethics, Mr. Ventura said his career was “riding high” when he first made contact with the reporters.

        He had worked as Chiquita's counsel in Central America and, later, for the largest law firm in Utah.

        But he said his contact with the Enquirer changed all that. He said the reporters gradually coaxed him into revealing information about Chiquita, all the while assuring him he would remain anonymous.

        “There is something akin to a friendship that they're nurturing, bringing you along, seducing you,” Mr. Ventura wrote. He said he never knew the reporters tape-recorded his conversations with them and was shocked when he learned that prosecutors had some of those tapes.

        Mr. McWhirter could not be reached Wednesday. He said in a response published with the article that Mr. Ventura's claims “are false and libelous as to me.” He has previously said he never supplied information that would reveal a source.

        But Mr. Ventura, who has filed a federal lawsuit against the Enquirer, said the newspaper betrayed him and must accept responsibility.

        He said the decision to fire Mr. Gallagher may have made the reporter feel as if he had no option other than to reveal his sources.

        “They cut him loose, and they left him to hang,” Mr. Ventura wrote. “I truly don't know if I would have done something different if I had been in his shoes.”

       



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