2 St. Mary's officials settle libel suit against newspaper

March 04, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

The St. Mary's County sheriff and a county commissioner have settled their 1992 libel suit against a local weekly newspaper that reported that the two officials were players in a clandestine gambling room frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes.

Sheriff Wayne Pettit and W. Edward Bailey will get no money, published retraction or apology in the settlement.

St. Mary's Today this week published a 31-line statement saying the paper had "intended only to report allegations made by uncorroborated sources to law enforcement authorities." The statement does not say that the stories were inaccurate or address the question of whether the paper acted maliciously.

The statement, which appeared on page two under the heading, "Clarification," notes that state police investigated the allegations against the officials and found no evidence "to justify further investigation or criminal prosecutions." It says the paper still believes the allegations warranted further investigation.

Lawyers for both sides negotiated the wording of the statement, its position in the paper and the page-one headline in Tuesday's edition: "Pettit & Bailey Agree to Settle Libel Suit," said Michael F. Canning Jr., the plaintiffs' lawyer.

Asked if he were pleased with the settlement, Mr. Bailey said yesterday, "I guess this was the best we could get. . . . It's just one of these things. We have to get on with our lives."

He said he and Mr. Pettit probably spent $30,000 to $40,000 to pursue the libel suit, which originally demanded a $1.5 million judgment against the 6,500-circulation paper, edited and owned by Kenneth C. Rossignol since 1990.

Mr. Rossignol, who wrote the stories that triggered the suit, said "I'm very sorry it's settled. . . . I was looking forward to the fight" in court.

He said he was pleased with the free legal representation he received from a Washington law firm and agreed with his lawyers to settle the case. Mr. Rossignol said he would have pursued the case to trial if he had had enough money.

Mr. Canning said it became clear before the suit was filed in December 1992 that because of the paper's poor financial condition, it was unlikely that the plaintiffs would get any money from the suit.

"We knew there was going to be no financial recovery," said Mr. Canning, whose office is in Prince George's County. "This was simply a matter of clearing our clients' name." Stories, editorials and cartoons about the gambling room in a boarded-up building on Route 235 in Lexington Park first ran in five editions of St. Mary's Today between November 1992 and December 1992.

The paper reported that an illegal poker game had been going on for more than 25 years in the building, that regular players included known drug dealers and organized crime figures, and that prostitutes were seen soliciting customers inside. Quoting unidentified sources, the paper reported that on occasions there had been thousands of dollars on the table at a time.

Mr. Canning said depositions revealed that a poker game had been operating at the building for nearly 30 years, but it apparently was a legal, low-stakes game involving local business people.

State Police Capt. Guy Guyton, head of criminal investigations, told lawyers under oath that an undercover officer visited the gambling room three times in about three months in summer 1992 and did not see Mr. Bailey, Mr. Pettit, or any evidence of drugs or prostitution, Mr. Canning said.

The lawyer said that if the case had gone to trial, the plaintiffs were prepared to call two witnesses who had played poker in the building steadily for 30 years and who would testify that they never saw Mr. Pettit or Mr. Bailey in the room.

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