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Chiquita sues reporter for stealing voice-mail

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  1. Newsgathering
OHIO--In early July the world's largest banana producer filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Columbus accusing a…

OHIO–In early July the world’s largest banana producer filed a lawsuit in a federal district court in Columbus accusing a reporter of breaking into the company’s voice-mail system and stealing more than 2,000 messages.

The lawsuit, filed by Chiquita Brands International, claims that former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher used Chiquita employees to infiltrate the company’s voice-mail system and then stole messages from password-protected boxes.

Gallagher wrote a series of articles for the Enquirer in early May indicating that Chiquita, formerly known as the United Fruit Company, secretly controlled several supposedly independent banana companies, harmed workers by carelessly misusing pesticides, and bribed Columbian officials. The reports were based in part on the voice-mail messages Gallagher obtained, although one of the articles indicated that the messages had been provided by “a high-ranking Chiquita executive.”

Chiquita took no legal action against the newspaper, which in late June paid $10 million to the company and printed an apology three days in a row, running it at the top of its front page on the first day. The apology said, “The facts now indicate that an Enquirer employee was involved in the theft of this information in violation of the law.” It was signed by the newspaper’s publisher, Harry Whipple, and its editor, Lawrence Beaupre.

Though the Enquirer apologized for “the untrue conclusions in the Chiquita series of articles,” it left some doubt about whether the newspaper believed that they were inaccurate. “We are not aware of anything to suggest that this is an instance of a reporter fabricating something,” Whipple told The New York Times.

Chiquita is suing Gallagher for defamation, trespass, civil conspiracy, fraud, and violation of laws prohibiting interception of private telephone communications. The lawsuit does not specify the amount of damages the company hopes to recover.

The newspaper fired Gallagher in late June, shortly before it announced the settlement. It is also continuing an internal investigation of the matter. The theft allegations are also under investigation by the FBI, the Hamilton County sheriff’s department and a special prosecutor appointed by an Ohio state court. At least one former Enquirer reporter testified before a grand jury in connection with the special prosecutor’s investigation. Gallagher has been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury in early July, but has asked a court to quash the subpoena. (Chiquita Brands Int’l v. Gallagher; Media Counsel: Patrick Hanley, Cincinnati )