A tabloid newspaperman is alleging that seven St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies violated his First Amendment rights last year when they bought more than 3,000 copies of his newspaper that ran unflattering stories about their political allies, according to a civil rights suit filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
Attorneys for Kenneth C. Rossignol, the publisher of St. Mary's Today, allege in the suit that the deputies drove around St. Mary's County early on Election Day, Nov. 3, 1998, buying newsstand and newspaper box copies of the paper "for the sole purpose of preventing distribution to the voting public of two news articles concerning candidates for . . . State's Attorney and Sheriff."
The deputies--including Capt. Steven M. Doolan, who now oversees the day-to-day operations of the $13 million agency, and Sgt. Michael Merican, the sheriff's internal affairs investigator--videotaped themselves sticking quarters in newspaper boxes during the moonlit mission. Those videotapes are now part of the evidence in a criminal probe by the FBI.
The sheriff, Richard J. Voorhaar (R), who was reelected last year, said he would not comment until consulting with his attorney, nor would Doolan and Merican. Voorhaar has defended his men in the past, saying that his officers broke no laws and were acting as private citizens when they bought the newspapers.
However, Rossignol's lawsuit alleges that the deputies abused the power of their office by threatening and intimidating convenience store clerks into allowing them to buy many copies of the newspaper. Further, the lawsuit states, more than 300 copies of the newspaper are missing.
"This is an outrage," said Alice Neff Lucan, Rossignol's attorney. She and Rossignol are backed by the D.C. media litigation firm of Levine, Sullivan & Koch, which agreed to help with the case because of the First Amendment issues involved.
"It's an absolutely unacceptable way for law enforcement officers to behave, whether they were off-duty or on-duty," Lucan said. "They don't have the power to stop a newspaper from publishing."
Rossignol, who published the scrappy tabloid for more than 10 years in St. Mary's County, announced in September that he was ceasing publication of the weekly newspaper but would continue the online version of St. Mary's Today.
Last year's Election Day issue of St. Mary's Today resurrected a decades-old statutory rape charge against Richard D. Fritz (R), who was elected state's attorney in the voting that day. The paper's banner headline said "Fritz Guilty of Rape." In 1965, when he was a teenager, Fritz pleaded guilty to having sex with a 15-year-old girl and received 18 months' probation. The same issue of the tabloid carried an unflattering story about the sheriff's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that Fritz and Voorhaar orchestrated the newspaper buy-up, but both Fritz and Voorhaar have previously said that the deputies acted alone. Fritz did not return telephone calls requesting comment yesterday.
The suit asks for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for Rossignol for "emotional distress and mental anguish" and asks that the judge require that the sheriff's office implement a program that trains its officers on the constitutional rights of citizens.