Unusual request for press ban comes as Times reporter sniffs around a firing (possibly having to do with previously reported allegations of animal abuse during Lord of the Rings filming) and claimed conflicts in group’s funding by producers.
Movie Animal Watchdog Group Asks Court to Prohibit LA Times From Publishing Internal Report
by Denise Levin
The American Humane Association, the nonprofit organization whose western office monitors the treatment of animals in television and film productions, is trying to put a muzzle on the Los Angeles Times.
The AHA filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the newspaper on the belief that its reporters are working on an investigative project using an internal AHA report. The AHA wants the court to deem the report a product of attorney-client privilege and prohibit the Times from using it. Neither a reporter working on the story or the Times’ attorney could comment on the Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit.
It is highly unusual for courts in the United States to issue any order blocking publication of news. While the suit makes no mention of seeking an injunction or restraining order, it asks the court for a ”declaration that the Times is prohibited from publishing” the report or ”using” it in ”any news article the Times may publish.”
The report was made by an attorney from the Kutak Rock law firm, the lawsuit says. The attorney was asked by the AHA’s Western Regional Office to conduct an investigation into a series of disputes within the office and make legal recommendations. As part of his investigation, the lawyer interviewed employees of the office and advised them that any communication with him would be confidential, the suit adds. The attorney submitted a written report on his findings to AHA’s president, Robert F.X. Hart, in September 1999, and it was marked ”Privileged and Confidential, Attorney-Client Communication and/or Work Product.” The lawsuit does not give any hint as to the nature of the disputes or the outcome of the investigation. The report is called the Kutak Rock Report.
A month later, AHA’s Board of Directors ousted Hart, who filed suit against the organization in March in Colorado. The still-pending suit claims the AHA had no reason to terminate Hart.
In conjunction with a story he was reporting regarding the filming of the upcoming Lord of the Rings, Times reporter Ralph Frammolino requested and was granted an interview last Thursday with Gini Barrett, AHA’s Western Regional Office director. ”During the interview, it became clear that (the) inquiry about the filming of the Lord of the Rings was a subterfuge. Frammolino asked Barrett questions about what he characterized as ‘AHA’s conflict of interest’ due to monitoring the activities of movie sets while receiving funding from SAG,” the suit says. The lawsuit goes on to explain that AHA receives funding from the Producers Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund, which is administered by the Screen Actors Guild, and that the fund is provided by grants from producers. AHA uses the money to monitor sets and protect animal actors. Frammolino was probing about the alleged conflict of interest that arises when AHA monitors those who pay for it. Frammolino also raised a related ”concern” that dealt with a former AHA employee and activities related to that employee that were contained in the Kutak Rock Report, the suit states.
Immediately following the interview, Barrett called AHA’s attorney, Michael St. Denis, and another AHA officer, but neither of them had any knowledge that the Times had a copy of the report, the suit says.
The next day, Frammolino requested and was granted another interview, this time with AHA President Timothy O’Brien, the suit says. Frammolino allegedly followed the same line of questioning he did the day before with Barrett, and O’Brien delayed the interview and called St. Denis about the Times having the report. O’Brien called Frammolino back and told him he could not answer any questions regarding the report because it was privileged and relates to the Colorado litigation, the suit states. Later that day, St. Denis contacted Frammolino, who would neither confirm nor deny that the Times had a copy of the report, the suit says, but admitted that they were aware of its contents. St. Denis was referred to the Times’ attorney, Karlene Worthington-Goller, who also would not confirm or deny if the Times had the report, and then ”refused to return it and also refused to not use it in any news articles the Times may publish,” the suit says.
”St. Denis specifically did not seek to prohibit the Times from reporting on the creation of the Kutak Rock Report, nor did he request that the Times not publish the same information gained from unprivileged sources, but objected only to the use of a constitutionally protected communication between an attorney and his client,” the suit says.
St. Denis, of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, filed the lawsuit on behalf of AHA.