Ohio paper: Prosecutor shouldn’t use county insurance to fund lawsuit

Monday, March 15, 1999

After publishing a series of stories on a hotly debated Head Start program, The Chronicle-Telegram, a daily newspaper in Elyria, Ohio, has found itself on the defensive end of a defamation suit filed by a county prosecutor.

While Andy Young, the newspaper's editor, admits that he is distressed about the defamation lawsuit, he says he's most concerned that the county's insurance company is footing the prosecutor's legal bills.

“I think it certainly raises the question of whether it's appropriate for a public official to use county insurance if he will benefit personally in this court case,” Young said. “To me, it raises the issue … of how the county government might use public money to pursue legal claims and libel claims.”

In the lawsuit filed last October, Jonathan Rosenbaum, an assistant prosecutor in Lorain County, sued the newspaper and three of its executives claiming that they had defamed him in a number of articles. He is seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

The newspaper last week asked the Lorain County Common Pleas Court to grant summary judgment in the case in its favor on First Amendment grounds.

The lawsuit grew partly from a series of articles The Chronicle-Telegram published early last year about two people who were convicted of molesting Head Start preschool students.

But Young said the core of Rosenbaum's complaint stemmed from a lawsuit involving a former Chronicle-Telegram reporter. He said Rosenbaum had written to a journalism organization urging the group to revoke a first-place award it had given reporter Paul Facinelli for an earlier series of Head Start stories.

On May 11, Facinelli sued Rosenbaum for defamation in the courts of neighboring Cuyahoga County.

“I was not happy about that,” said Young, adding that he fired Facinelli for not informing the newspaper beforehand. “To my mind, that represented a conflict of interest. I believe he had an obligation to let me know from the beginning.”

Using funds from the county's insurance program, Rosenbaum filed a counterclaim. A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge dismissed the case.

Rosenbaum filed a new claim in Lorain County that named the newspaper and several of its executives as well. Despite his change from defendant to plaintiff, the prosecutor continues to be covered under the county's insurance policy.

Rosenbaum didn't return calls made to his office.

But in published reports, Rosenbaum and County Prosecutor Greg White said the lawsuit, in effect, was a counterclaim.

But the newspaper argues that Rosenbaum's latest lawsuit is divorced completely from the original suit and, thus, no longer leaves the prosecutor in a defendant's capacity.

“His view of this has been that this is essentially a defensive action,” Young said. “But as was made clear by a judge in the adjoining county where his original action was filed and dismissed, this is not a defensive action.”

Young contends Rosenbaum stands to gain a considerable amount of money with no financial risk. He noted that all of the prosecutor's legal bills would be covered by the taxpayer-funded insurance program.

But Young says he worries about any precedents Rosenbaum's lawsuit might set.

“If Rosenbaum is free to use county funds to pursue the newspaper, he might be tempted to sue again, whether or not he wins any damages,” Young wrote in his newspaper column last year. “His next target might be a defense lawyer who wins a case against him and dares to crow about it.”