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Judge threatens newspaper; recuses himself from libel case

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Judge threatens newspaper; recuses himself from libel case

  • After making retaliatory threats against The Buffalo News if it published a story about an arrested attorney, a state trial judge stepped down from a libel case he was presiding over that involved the paper.

Dec. 1, 2003 — A trial judge in Buffalo last week recused himself from a libel case he was presiding over against The Buffalo News in response to a motion and three affidavits filed by the newspaper Nov. 24.

The News asked state Supreme Court Justice Nelson H. Cosgrove to step down — as well as disqualify himself from participating in all future actions involving the newspaper, its owner, Berkshire Hathaway, or any employee of the paper — because he threatened to “hurt” or “get” the newspaper if it published a story about a lawyer involved in an unrelated case. In New York, the Supreme Court is the name of the trial-level court.

Cosgrove agreed to recuse himself from the libel case, but did not address the request regarding his participation in all future cases involving the News.

“I’ve been representing this paper for 20 years, and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said News attorney Joseph Finnerty.

The Buffalo News reported a story in mid-November about attorney Carmen P. Tarantino, of Buffalo, who was arrested Nov. 1 and faced charges of burglary, grand larceny and criminal mischief for breaking into his girlfriend’s home. Cosgrove, who was presiding over a medical malpractice case in which Tarantino was the defendant’s lawyer, heard that the News was working on the story, and called the newspaper’s editors to ask them not to publish the article.

Cosgrove told Deputy Managing Editor Stan Evans, according to Evans’ affidavit, that the publicity might cause a mistrial, which would be expensive and inconvenient for all parties involved. Evans conferring with the News‘ editor, Margaret Sullivan, and called Cosgrove back to say the newspaper would publish the story as soon as it was ready. Cosgrove told Evans he was “pissed off” and threatened to “find a way or look for the opportunity to do something to ‘hurt’ the News,” Evans’ affidavit said.

“Justice Cosgrove’s conduct . . . is manifestly improper in the context of this specific case and in broader aspects, as he has attempted under color of his office to influence the news publication process,” the motion said.

The libel suit was brought in 1995 by Sidney Cottrell, an area businessman, against The Buffalo News for an article the paper wrote in ’94. Finnerty would not comment on the long-running case, which was schedule to go to trial next fall. Finnerty says he does not know when it will now go to trial, or who will preside over it.

The Supreme Court’s Administrative Judge, Sharon S. Townsend, could not be reached for comment.

(Sidney Cottrell v. Berkshire Hathaway, The Buffalo News; Media Counsel: Joseph Finnerty, Stenger & Finnerty, Buffalo) JL

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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