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Reporter sentenced over Chiquita voice-mail theft

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OHIO--Former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher was sentenced to five years of probation and 200 hours of community service in…

OHIO–Former Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher was sentenced to five years of probation and 200 hours of community service in mid-July for illegally gaining access to the internal voice-mail system at the Chiquita Brands International banana company while researching an investigative series on the company’s business practices, according to the Associated Press.

Gallagher had pleaded guilty to felony charges of unlawful interception of communications and unauthorized access to voice-mail systems in October 1998 in the Court of Common Pleas in Cincinnati. He faced a maximum sentence of two-and-one-half years in prison and fines of $7,500. Gallagher pleaded guilty to the two felony charges as part of a settlement with prosecutors in which he agreed to cooperate with their investigation of the voice-mail theft and ultimately disclosed his confidential source — former Chiquita lawyer George Ventura.

The series of articles Gallagher wrote for the Enquirer, which were published in May 1998, questioned Chiquita’s Central American business dealings, accused company officials of bribery in Colombia, alleged the company’s pesticide practices endangered workers’ health, and alleged that Chiquita ships were used to smuggle cocaine. The newspaper reportedly paid Chiquita more than $10 million as part of a confidential legal settlement, under which Chiquita agreed not to sue the Enquirer. Gallagher was fired from his position after the Enquirer “renounced” the series.

The agreement reached between Chiquita and the newspaper, however, did not cover Gallagher. He was sued by Chiquita for defamation, trespass, civil conspiracy, fraud, and violation of laws prohibiting the interception of private telephone communications. According to Associated Press reports, Chiquita has settled its lawsuit against Gallagher but refuses to disclose the terms of that settlement.

Ventura pleaded no contest in June to charges of supplying Gallagher with the codes necessary to gain access to the internal voice-mail system and was sentenced to two years of probation and 40 hours of community service.

(Chiquita Brands Int’l v. Gallagher; Gallagher’s Counsel: Patrick Hanley, Cincinnati)