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That became clear when Busch first challenged Christy‘s ”reporting“ techniques. She dropped by a store that was featured repeatedly in the column and asked if there was some ”relationship“ with the writer. When word got back to Christy, he complained to the publisher, and Dowling assigned the column to another editor. When Robb began nosing around the same territory, Dowling tried to steer him off as well. And when Robb filed his story, Dowling refused to read it and assigned the matter to another reporter.
That’s when Robb quit; a week later, Busch and Laski followed suit. Stung by their challenge to his ethics, Dowling responded with one of his own, a letter to readers castigating Robb and Busch for harboring ”personal agendas that ultimately led to a glaring lack of objectivity.“ In a related altercation with staff of the Directors Guild, Dowling said, ”Robb crossed the line of standards and ethics.“
Christy‘s ethics, however, were never a problem for Dowling. In fact, the star columnist might have survived the trade-paper tempest unscathed, but he committed a breach more egregious than anything he did in print: He failed to honor his sponsor.
Christy was suspended May 25. According to executives at the Reporter, the ouster came only after Christy lied to Dowling when asked if an office that the Reporter had rented for the columnist was in any way connected to Motion Picture Corporation of America. MPCA was the film-production entity that was named, in 1993, in a pension-fraud civil lawsuit involving Christy (the suit was settled out of court).
Dowling could handle the allegations that Christy was padding a pension account by getting film pals to credit him for work he didn’t perform. But he couldn‘t handle being lied to.
Thus began a slow-motion exit that led to what could be the longest paid leave of absence since Napoleon took a one-way cruise to Elba.
On June 4 the Reporter made this offer: If Christy resigned immediately, he would get two weeks of severance pay for every year he worked (at 26 years, the total would be about $70,000), be allowed to pen a farewell column, and have access to the personnel files of former reporter Robb and former editor Anita Busch without a subpoena to determine if Christy could get a defamation suit against them up and running. Dowling would even throw a going-away affair for the 70-year-old columnist.
It took a while for Lane to respond.
”Let me get this straight,“ he posited. ”You want to fire my client and then throw him a party?“
Christy’s next move was to retain a veteran Beverly Hills publicist and trial litigator, Gatti, a courtroom pit bull whose client list includes stars like Bob Dylan and Paula Abdul. In mid-June, Christy demanded his job back. When refused that, lawyer Gatti supposedly demanded $300,000 and threatened to file suit if he didn‘t get it. The Reporter balked, and nothing was settled.
In the last week of June, in fact, a lawyer for the Reporter told the Weekly: ”There’s no guarantee that George is leaving the Reporter.“
There‘s been mostly silence since, leaving Christy and his lawyers frustrated, but judiciously patient. ”Dowling doesn’t know if he‘s waiting for the results of the SAG investigation against George or his own new job,“ claims attorney Lane. ”All Dowling knows is that it’s bad juju to go public and say he‘s firing George.“ (Dowling did not return repeated calls for comment.)
The message all of this sends about ethics is, at best, mixed. Lane makes a point to say that Christy never crossed the only line that matters -- a line he draws at graft, not swag. ”George never engaged in graft -- which is demanding payment in exchange for coverage,“ Lane says.
As for Busch and Robb, they have their ethics intact, but unlike Bart or even Christy, they haven’t seen another paycheck. By resigning on principle, they forfeited even a claim to severance money.
Reporting by Ross Johnson