A St. Mary's County newspaper publisher will receive $435,000 in a settlement of a lawsuit alleging that the county state's attorney, a former sheriff and six deputies violated the First Amendment when they participated in a plan to keep unflattering stories away from the public on Election Day 1998.
State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz said yesterday that he has personally paid $10,000 to settle the case.
The county insurer, Local Government Insurance Trust, also agreed to pay $425,000 to Kenneth C. Rossignol, publisher and editor of the California, Md.-based St. Mary's Today tabloid.
Last May, a federal judge ruled that Fritz, then-Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar and six deputies were liable for civil damages for violating Rossignol's First Amendment rights.
The defendants appealed. But the settlement terms, publicized yesterday, will end any further litigation, according to a county government spokeswoman.
Rossignol, who said his 15-year-old weekly newspaper has about 25,000 readers, hailed the settlement as a victory.
"It reaffirms what the court has said, which is . . . that only the public can decide whether or not they want to read a newspaper," Rossignol said.
"It can't be denied to them, and the right to publish and distribute a newspaper can't be denied to me," he said.
Fritz said yesterday that he agreed to the settlement less as a matter of right and wrong than as a matter of dollars and cents.
"My attorney said, 'Hey, look, if we keep litigating, it's going to minimally cost you $50,000,' " Fritz said.
"This case did not come down to who's right and who's wrong. It came down solely to an issue of how much attorney's fees are going to have to be paid," Fritz said.
Fritz said no one admitted any wrongdoing in the settlement. "I still don't admit any wrongdoing," Fritz said, adding that he paid the $10,000 about two weeks ago.
The case that became known in St. Mary's as the "newspaper caper" began when Rossignol published a front-page story on Election Day 1998 with the headline "Fritz Guilty of Rape," detailing Fritz's 1965 conviction for carnal knowledge of a 15-year-old girl when he was 18, as well as a story about Voorhaar's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.
Fritz and Voorhaar were on the ballot. Fritz was elected to his first term as state's attorney that day, and Voorhaar was reelected sheriff.
In his lawsuit, Rossignol alleged that St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies, acting with the approval of Fritz and Voorhaar, went out in the predawn hours of Nov. 3, 1998, and purchased 1,300 or more copies of the newspaper to keep the articles from being read by voters before they went to the polls.