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Scripps, local station sued for defamation over parole board report

A local station owned by the E. W. Scripps Company faces a defamation lawsuit in Virginia court over two news reports that covered an ongoing scandal involving the early release of a former inmate.

The complaint was filed earlier this week in Richmond City Circuit Court against CBS affiliate WTVR (Channel 6), its crime reporter Jonathan Burkett  and Scripps alleging the reports contained commentary and missing information that, if it had been included, would have told the entire story.

The lawsuit was filed by Tonya Chapman, the current head of Virginia’s Parole Board.

The stories focused on watchdog reports issued by Virginia’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concerning the early release of Vincent Martin, a 63-year-old inmate who spent around 40 years in prison after being convicted for the 1979 murder of a police officer.

A six-page report prepared by the OIG and given to some state lawmakers revealed holes in the transparency process for the parole board’s decision.

A lengthier draft report was later leaked to members of the media and contained numerous allegations that “are not completely vetted or supported by facts.” The complaint filed in court on Monday said the claims were removed from the finalized version of the report “because they were not true.”

Burkett’s stories, which aired on television last year, painted the draft report as the “original” and included commentary from pundits that said the shortened, finalized report “definitely looks like information was withheld to avoid embarrassment or undesirable publicity.”

The draft document contained numerous allegations that suggested the parole board examiner decided to become an advocate for the inmate instead of remaining an impartial party, and that she “was going to purposely release Martin and certain other inmates near the end of her term because of the backlash those decisions would bring,” Burkett and the station reported.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the pundit’s commentary was solicited “solely for the purpose of providing a slanted and distorted explanation for why portions of the 13-page document had been altered or removed.”

The plaintiffs also took issue with Burkett’s claim that the draft document was written by the state’s Inspector General Michael Westfall. The complaint says the report was actually written by Jennifer Moschetti, an investigator who was probing the parole board’s decision in the case. Moshetti has a pending lawsuit against Westfall after she was suspended from the agency for raising concerns about impropriety.

Chapman claims the reports published by WTVR and Burkett caused “injury and harm” to her “good personal reputation and her good business reputation, as well as great humiliation, shame, vilification, exposure to public infamy, scandal and disgrace.”

Chapman is seeking $7 million in damages.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).