A St. Mary's County newspaper publisher will receive $435,000 in a settlement of a lawsuit alleging that the county's current 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 voters on Election Day 1998.
State's Attorney Richard D. Fritz (R), who was elected that day despite the highly critical article about him, said last week that he has already personally paid $10,000 to settle the case. However, Fritz said he admits no wrongdoing in the episode, which became known as the "newspaper caper."
The county's insurer, the Local Government Insurance Trust, which provides joint self-insurance programs for local governments in Maryland, agreed to pay Kenneth C. Rossignol, publisher and editor of the St. Mary's Today tabloid, $425,000 to settle the lawsuit, St. Mary's County announced.
The settlement, which was made public Wednesday, ends any further litigation in connection with the incident. The agreement protects the deputies and their families from any further lawsuits or personal liability, a county spokeswoman said.
In May 2004, a federal judge ruled that Fritz, then-Sheriff Richard J. Voorhaar (R) and six deputies were liable for civil damages for violating Rossignol's First Amendment rights when they drove around the county trying to buy all the copies of St. Mary's Today, which featured a front-page story detailing Fritz's conviction as a teenager of carnal knowledge of a minor.
Fritz, the county and the other defendants had appealed that ruling. Their appeal will be dismissed as part of the settlement.
Rossignol, who said his 15-year-old weekly newspaper has about 25,000 readers, hailed the settlement as a victory for the First Amendment.
"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 the newspaper can't be denied to me. That's our First Amendment right."
Seth Berlin, a Washington lawyer who represented Rossignol, said the settlement is "a victory in the cause of free speech and for the rights of the citizens of the county to choose what they want to read without interference by public officials."
But Fritz said his agreement to the settlement was less a matter of right and wrong than it was 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 be paid. I can't afford to pay $50,000 to keep litigating an issue."
Fritz said the case was settled with no one admitting wrongdoing. "I still don't admit any wrongdoing," Fritz said, adding that he paid the $10,000 about two weeks ago.
The settlement marks the final chapter of the "newspaper caper," which began when Rossignol published a front-page story on Election Day 1998 that was headlined "Fritz Guilty of Rape" and that detailed Fritz's 1965 conviction for carnal knowledge of a minor as well as a story about Voorhaar's handling of a sexual harassment complaint.
(In 1965, when he was 18, Fritz pleaded guilty to carnal knowledge of a minor, a misdemeanor, in an incident involving a 15-year-old girl. Fritz has maintained that his sexual encounter with the girl was consensual. However, under Maryland law, a 15-year-old was not considered legally competent to consent to sex.)
Both Fritz and Voorhaar were on the ballot that day. Fritz was elected to his first term as state's attorney, and Voorhaar was reelected sheriff.
Rossignol alleged that St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies, acting with the approval of Fritz and Voorhaar, went to newspaper boxes and convenience stores in the pre-dawn 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.
That, Rossignol said, was a violation of his First Amendment rights. Fritz, Voorhaar and the deputies said they did nothing wrong because they purchased the papers and were not acting in their capacity as law enforcement officials.
Rossignol's lawsuit alleged that the deputies abused the power of their office by intimidating store clerks into allowing them to buy the newspapers.
The deputies split into two groups, with Capt. Steven M. Doolan -- who retired from the force last summer -- Sgt. Michael R. Merican and Deputy 1st Class Harold Young in one, and Sgt. Edward Willenborg, Sgt. Lyle E. Long and Deputy 1st Class Steven Myers in the other.
Each group videotaped itself through the night buying stacks of newspapers by depositing coins into vending boxes.
Both Fritz and Voorhaar had previously said that the deputies acted alone, but according to a February 2002 ruling in the case by a federal judge, Voorhaar and Fritz had advance knowledge of the plan and contributed money to the effort, though they did not order it.
In January 2003, the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed a District Court ruling against the newspaper. The 4th Circuit decided that Fritz, Voorhaar and the off-duty deputies had acted under color of law, meaning that they appeared to be operating with the authority of their office.
In an order sending the case back to the lower court for trial, the appellate judges called it a "classic example of the kind of suppression of political criticism which the First Amendment was intended to prohibit."
In May 2004, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson granted summary judgment in favor of Rossignol and the newspaper on claims that the defendants violated provisions of the U.S. and Maryland constitutions.
RICHARD D. FRITZ
RICHARD J. VOORHAAR