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PR battle rages over Conoco suit in Florida
PENSACOLA, Fla. -- One side in an $500 million environmental lawsuit has been hammering at the other in a newspaper with links to a former congressman, also a partner in the plaintiffs' law firm.
Meanwhile, an ex-state legislator and a public relations firm have been trying to gin up public support for the defendant, Conoco Inc., accused of polluting Pensacola's water supply.
"What you have going on is a very nasty class-action lawsuit in which both sides are trying very hard to tell their story to prospective jurors," Nova Southeastern University law professor Bob Jarvis said.
Houston-based Conoco has accused the law firm headed by Fred Levin, namesake of the University of Florida's law school, of violating legal ethics by using The Independent Florida Sun, a free weekly, to disseminate vitriolic and inaccurate statements.
Conoco has asked a Circuit Judge Michael Jones to punish firm member Mike Papantonio, the lead attorney for citizens allegedly harmed by pollution from an abandoned fertilizer plant once owned by Agrico Chemical Co., now part of
Conoco. Former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, the Sun's publisher emeritus, is a partner in the firm, Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Eschsner & Proctor.
Scarborough, a Pensacola Republican, said Papantonio has no control over what goes in the Sun. The First Amendment protects his right to make public statements and the newspaper's right to print its views on the matter, Scarborough said.
Papantonio, also an environmental activist, said he disagreed with the Sun's implication Pensacola's water is unsafe but believes Conoco covered up past problems. He accused the company of "media envy" and hypocrisy
Conoco spent $300,000 on its publicity campaign last year, according to court documents. That included hiring a public relations firm, making donations to local charities and conducting a market survey with questions suggesting the plaintiffs' lawyers were interested only in making money.
The company also has hired former legislator Debbie Ritchie for such things as working on a reception related to a World War II memorial and volunteering at a children's center and art museum.
She served as a Democratic state representative from Key West under the name Deborah James Horan and is married to Buzz Ritchie, a former legislator from Pensacola.
He was the House Democratic leader before retiring in 1998 and was succeeded by his former wife, DeeDee Ritchie, also a Pensacola Democrat, who resigned two years ago to run for the Florida Senate.
Scarborough and Sun reporter Duwayne Escobedo attended at least two depositions where defense witnesses were questioned. Escobedo was listed as appearing "for the plaintiffs." He declined comment other than to say he stood by his stories.
Conoco's complaint was based on the Feb. 22 Sun edition that included a cover photograph showing a small girl holding a glass of presumably polluted water and the headline "Radioactive Water on Tap."
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