St. Mary's sheriff, commissioner accuse paper of libel over gambling stories

December 20, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

The St. Mary's County sheriff and a county commissioner have filed a libel suit against a local weekly newspaper for reporting that the two men took part in high-stakes poker games with known drug dealers.

The $1.5 million suit filed Tuesday by Sheriff Wayne L. Pettit and Commissioner Edward Bailey in Circuit Court in Leonardtown charges that articles, headlines and cartoons in five editions of St. Marys Today were "defamatory in injuring plaintiffs Bailey and Pettit in their profession and employment." The suit claims that the stories were published "with reckless disregard for the truth."

The stories, which have appeared nearly every week since Nov. 3, quoted unidentified sources saying that Sheriff Pettit and Mr. Bailey were seen in a clandestine gambling room in Lexington Park frequented by drug peddlers, prostitutes and organized crime figures. The stories claim that large amounts of cash were on the table during the poker games.

"The character and reputation of plaintiffs Pettit and Bailey have been harmed permanently, their standing and reputation in the community have been impaired permanently," the lawsuit says, denying all allegations printed by the paper.

Kenneth C. Rossignol, the owner and editor of St. Marys Today and author of the articles cited in the suit, said he welcomed the suit as an opportunity to air the charges in court.

"The truth is the absolute defense," said Mr. Rossignol, 45, who ++ has been publishing the tabloid since July 1990. "It'll be great to get Sheriff Pettit under oath on the witness stand. It'll be interesting to see what he says then."

He said he hoped the suit would "turn the light on over the top of St. Mary's County, stop making this the private little playground of the good old boys."

Mr. Rossignol declined to say how many sources he used for the stories, which stated that the gambling room operated for more than 25 years in a small, boarded-up cinder-block building next to a liquor store on Route 235. The articles said that information came from "a high-ranking state police source" and from "informed sources."

Neither Sheriff Pettit nor Mr. Bailey would return Mr. Rossignol's calls to comment on the stories, Mr. Rossignol said.

The paper, with a circulation of about 6,500, focuses on crime and politics, with particular emphasis on drug busts and drunken-driving arrests. Its headlines regularly refer to accused drug peddlers as "cockroaches," while others accused of crimes are commonly dismissed in news briefs as "dirtbags."

The original story on Nov. 3 carried the headline "Pettit & Bailey Gamble with drug dealers," and reported that state police were conducting an undercover investigation of the gambling room until their officer's identity was discovered. No arrests were ever made, the story said.

The paper reported that the investigation was requested by Richard Fritz, St. Mary's deputy state's attorney. Mr. Fritz has not returned repeated telephone calls from The Sun for weeks.

State Police Capt. Guy Guyton, who is in charge of the agency's criminal investigations division, said last week that he could neither confirm nor deny that his officers ever conducted an investigation of the alleged gambling room on Route 235.

"I wouldn't say there never was an investigation," said Captain Guyton. "We've had a number of investigations down there. I wouldn't say we've ever targeted any particular place or any particular group."

He said he considered the St. Marys Today stories "absurd."

Since the suit was filed, Sheriff Pettit and Mr. Bailey are referring questions to a public relations firm in Annapolis. But a few weeks ago, both men denied knowing anything about the gambling room described in St. Marys Today.

"I don't know where this place is," said Sheriff Pettit, who retired as a state police lieutenant after 23 years of service and has been St. Mary's County sheriff since 1982. He said he has never received a complaint about gambling, drugs or prostitution at the building.

"I would not even think about doing what they've accused me of doing," said Sheriff Pettit. "It's no question, it's political," he said, noting that the paper had endorsed his opponent in the 1990 election.

"I've never been in the building," said Mr. Bailey, a local restaurateur and caterer who has served as a county commissioner since 1986. "I'm not even sure where it is."

Mr. Bailey said he was dumbfounded when he saw the first story.

Mr. Rossignol said the story originated with a tip about the gambling room and was not aimed at any public officials.

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