A coach's lawsuit poses challenge for Time Inc.
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In October 2003, Sports Illustrated reporter Don Yaeger gave a sworn deposition about an interview with a woman who described a sexual liaison with the head football coach of the University of Alabama.
Mr. Yaeger said the woman had told him that, for a fee, she and a female companion had "some pretty aggressive sex" in a Pensacola, Fla., hotel room with Mike Price, the married, 57-year-old coach. During the encounter, she said, "We started screaming, Roll Tide!" -- the cheer of Alabama's team, the Crimson Tide -- and Mr. Price responded, "It's rolling, baby, it's rolling."
The magazine reporter said in the deposition that he took notes during the interview and that they included the colorful "Roll Tide!" reference, which was the centerpiece of his 1,945-word article. In an affidavit two months later, however, he said he had been mistaken. "No notes ever existed," he said. Rather, Mr. Yaeger said he called his editor immediately after the interview and "recounted my entire conversation with the confidential source to him."
Mr. Yaeger's about-face on his notes is only one of several hurdles facing Sports Illustrated's parent, Time Inc., in a potentially embarrassing libel lawsuit Mr. Price has filed against the company and its reporter in federal court in Birmingham, Ala. Seeking $20 million in damages, the coach flatly denies the account of rowdy hotel sex and other salacious details in a May 12, 2003, article by Mr. Yaeger. Court documents show that SI, working on a tight deadline, depended heavily on a single anonymous source for an unflattering portrait of the man who then headed one of college football's most celebrated programs.
Before publication, the magazine discovered discrepancies in accounts of Mr. Price's activity in a topless bar before the alleged hotel encounter but didn't fully resolve them, according to depositions. SI has a policy of not paying its sources, but Mr. Yaeger gave one interview subject $200 for what he described as reimbursement of cab fare. And faced with a barrage of damning accounts of his behavior, Mr. Price was afforded only 3 1/2 lines in the SI article to deny the lurid sex story.
Time Inc. defends the article. The Price libel suit comes at a moment when the press is under fire for relying on anonymous sources. In a much-debated case in Washington, a Time Inc. reporter agreed last week, under threat of being jailed, to cooperate with the investigation of the leak of the name of an undercover operative with the Central Intelligence Agency. The reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, said an anonymous source, now known to be President Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove, had released him from their confidentiality agreement. Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, was jailed for refusing to cooperate with the leak probe, saying she was protecting a confidential source.
In the Alabama libel case, Mr. Price's lawyer wants Sports Illustrated to identify its confidential source so that he can directly challenge her account and credibility. A federal judge ruled in late 2003 that SI isn't covered by an Alabama law shielding journalists from revealing sources because the statute doesn't mention magazines. The judge, C. Lynwood Smith Jr., ordered Time Inc., a unit of Time Warner Inc., to disclose Mr. Yaeger's source. In May, the publisher argued its appeal of the order in a hearing before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule soon. A group of news organizations, including Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal, filed a brief supporting Time Inc., arguing that forcing SI to reveal the source would deter newsgathering. A trial date hasn't been set.
To win his suit, Mr. Price, who was fired from his Alabama post three days before the SI article appeared, would have to show more than errors in the piece. A public figure alleging libel must prove that the news organization acted with "actual malice," which means publishing information known to be false or recklessly disregarding whether the information was false or not.
Gary Huckaby, a Birmingham lawyer representing the publisher and Mr. Yaeger, says in an interview, "We believe we wrote a truthful story and wrote it without any malice whatsoever." He adds, "If you don't publish this story with the facts we had, you don't publish in situations where you know you're going to make someone angry. That means the public is going to read much less information about people in the public arena."
Time Inc.'s editor in chief, Norman Pearlstine, says, "I think we have good and adequate defenses against a libel case." Mr. Pearlstine adds that his decision, under court order, to comply with the criminal investigation of the CIA leak wouldn't affect Time Inc.'s decisions in the Price libel suit. "If we didn't believe in the importance of confidential sources, then we wouldn't be fighting the Mike Price case as hard as we are," he said.
Mr. Yaeger declined to comment. The reporter, who is 42 years old, joined Sports Illustrated in 1996. He has the title associate editor and specializes in investigative reporting. He has also written or co-written 11 books. In a June 2004 deposition, Craig Neff, an SI assistant managing editor, called him "an exceptional reporter."
In the 1980s, Mr. Yaeger was fired by two newspapers, in Texas and Florida. In one instance, he had failed to pay numerous parking tickets, and in the other, he was accused of improperly using a staff librarian for his book work. In his deposition, the reporter said of the parking tickets, "I was young and didn't handle the situation very well." He said he reimbursed the other paper for computer-research costs and was later offered his job back, but declined.
In a sideline highly unusual for a journalist on the staff of a major publication, Mr. Yaeger since 1990 has been involved in corporate lobbying in Florida's capital, Tallahassee, where he lives. Time Inc. said in a written answer to questions that it was aware that Mr. Yaeger is one of five owners of a lobbying firm. A Time Inc. spokesman says the company asked Mr. Yaeger to stop lobbying after it became aware of a federal investigation in Florida of him in connection with a 2000 state health-care contract. Mr. Yaeger wasn't charged with any wrongdoing and Time Inc. says he has told the company he doesn't do any lobbying work.
Mr. Yaeger is registered as a legislative lobbyist in Florida for 2005, according to state records. He is listed as having two dozen clients, including Oracle Corp. and KPMG LLP. Mr. Yaeger's lawyer says the reporter is required to register with the state because of his part ownership of the firm, One Eighty Consulting, but "is not to my knowledge in active lobbying."
SI assigned Mr. Yaeger to write about Mr. Price on Thursday, May 1, 2003, after media reports that the Alabama coach had been seen two weeks earlier in a strip club in Pensacola, where he was playing in a golf tournament. The university had just announced that it was investigating the coach, who had been hired the previous December. Mr. Price's seven-year, $10 million contract -- like those of many college coaches -- barred behavior that could bring disrepute on his employer.
The next evening, Mr. Yaeger interviewed people at the topless bar, Arety's Angels, he said in his deposition. The reporter and a free-lance photographer working for SI said in depositions that club employees told them that Mr. Price had visited twice on one day -- in the afternoon and again at night -- and had touched dancers inappropriately. One dancer, Lori Boudreaux, said Mr. Price invited her back to his room at the Crowne Plaza hotel.
On Saturday morning, Mr. Yaeger said in his deposition, he received a call from a lawyer representing a woman who claimed to have been in Mr. Price's hotel room. The lawyer -- whose name Mr. Yaeger said he couldn't recall -- said Mr. Price paid his client and another woman $500 each plus a tip. The lawyer said the woman wanted to be paid for her story. Mr. Yaeger said he responded that SI didn't pay for interviews.
The woman agreed to talk anyway, but only if her name wouldn't be revealed, Mr. Yaeger said. A short time later, according to the depositions, Mr. Yaeger met with the woman at the Crowne Plaza. She told him that at Arety's Mr. Price had invited her to the hotel and asked her to bring another woman. Shortly after midnight, she arrived at the room, the source said. Another woman was already there, and the three of them then had their raucous encounter, according to the unnamed source.
The SI photographer, Gary Bogdon, said in his July 2004 deposition that he was present during the interview with the confidential source. After the woman left, Mr. Bogdon said he and Mr. Yaeger were shocked by her revelations and agreed that she was "the real deal."
That same day, the University of Alabama's president announced Mr. Price's firing. School officials said in depositions that the coach had admitted visiting Arety's, but only once. He acknowledged getting drunk and spending the night with a waitress but denied having sex with her.
Mr. Yaeger returned to Tallahassee and the next morning, Sunday, May 4, filed his article to SI. Word of his piece spread through Time Inc.'s offices in midtown Manhattan. "Yaeger found Price's hooker," SI Managing Editor Terry McDonell wrote in an email to Time Inc.'s editor in chief, Mr. Pearlstine, and its editorial director, John Huey.
To meet Sports Illustrated's next printing deadline, the story had to be completed by 11 p.m. Monday. SI assigns a fact-checker to confirm the accuracy of every article, sometimes by reinterviewing sources. Several discrepancies surfaced during this process. The most salient one involved the number of women in Mr. Price's hotel room.
Fact-checker Luis Fernando Llosa said in a June 2004 deposition that he reinterviewed Mr. Yaeger's confidential source and that she said she and two other women were in the room -- for a total of three. Mr. Yaeger had reported only two women. SI published the lower number because "we were more certain that there were two" than three, Mr. Llosa said.
Mr. Price's lawyer, Stephen Heninger of Birmingham, says SI should have doubted the sex account. "You've got to think, what does this woman know? She's not even sure who's in the room, and we're going with this story?" the lawyer says.
Time Inc.'s Mr. Pearlstine declines to discuss the specifics of SI's reporting. But he says addressing discrepancies is normal during editing. "If anything, that's usually to me a sign that somebody is doing their job rather than that somebody is not," he says.
Mr. Yaeger interviewed Mr. Price on Sunday. According to a transcript of the phone call, which Mr. Yaeger recorded, he told the coach he had evidence of a hotel-room sexual encounter with Ms. Boudreaux and another topless dancer from Arety's.
"Well, Don, that's not true," Mr. Price responded, on the record. "That story you heard is completely false. I can't -- I mean it's unbelievable."
Mr. Yaeger said, "Well, they claim that they were each paid $500 by you for the night. Plus a tip which was healthy." Mr. Price said, "Well, someone bought 'em, bought 'em off, because it's a lie, a flat lie." Mr. Yaeger didn't ask Mr. Price about the vivid "Roll Tide!" exclamation or the claim of "aggressive sex." The reporter's lawyer, Mr. Huckaby, says that his client "was trying to open a dialogue about the entire incident," but Mr. Price "cut that off."
The SI article noted briefly that Mr. Price said he had visited Arety's only once, at night, not twice, and that he denied having sex in his hotel room. The article didn't quote Mr. Price directly.
Mr. Heninger, the plaintiff's lawyer, says he believes that SI used Ms. Boudreaux as both a named and anonymous source. In their depositions, Mr. Yaeger and the photographer, Mr. Bogdon, described the interviews of Ms. Boudreaux and the unnamed source in terms that made the interviews sound similar, including their time and location.
The SI piece, spread over four pages, included a small picture of Ms. Boudreaux and was headlined: "How He Met His Destiny at a Strip Club." The article noted that Ms. Boudreaux was using the stage name Destiny. In the article, she is quoted by name as saying Mr. Price groped and propositioned her. The confidential source is quoted separately describing the hotel encounter.
Mr. Heninger interviewed Ms. Boudreaux in August 2003, two months after filing the libel suit. According to a transcript of the recorded interview, the married 38-year-old mother of two said that her conversation with Mr. Yaeger at the hotel "was supposed to be in confidence." She repeated that contention in an interview for this article but declined to say whether she was the confidential source.
Mr. Yaeger, in his deposition, declined to discuss the question of whether he promised the dancer confidentiality, saying it could lead to the identification of his unnamed source.
Ms. Boudreaux also told the plaintiff's lawyer that she never said to Mr. Yaeger that she had gone to Mr. Price's hotel room but that she hadn't denied it either. She told the lawyer she only repeated to Mr. Yaeger what she had heard about the alleged sex and the "Roll Tide!" cheer from two other women who worked at Arety's and told her they were in the room.
Gary Huckaby, the Time Inc. lawyer, says the other side's informal interview of Ms. Boudreaux, who wasn't under oath, can't be used in court.
Mr. Yaeger said in his deposition that he spoke with Ms. Boudreaux about a dozen times in connection with the article and was "enormously confident" in her information. He also said that he had given the stripper $200 for cab fare to and from their in-person interview in Pensacola. Time Inc. said in a written answer to questions that Ms. Boudreaux traveled about 46 miles round trip.
However, Ms. Boudreaux, who now lives in Mississippi, said in the interview for this article that Mr. Yaeger told her the payment was "strictly personal." "He said, this is to help you out," she added. In an earlier affidavit, the dancer said the payment compensated her for missed work.
Regardless of whether Time Inc. is ultimately forced to identify Mr. Yaeger's source, Mr. Price says that the SI story was inaccurate. In a September 2003 deposition, Mr. Price said that on the afternoon when the magazine said he visited the strip club, he was flying to Pensacola, checking into his hotel and socializing with other golf-tournament attendees. Rather than making a "beeline back to" Arety's after dinner that evening, as the article states, Mr. Price said he visited three other bars first and arrived at Arety's at about 11:30 p.m., already "pretty intoxicated." He denied seeing Ms. Boudreaux, let alone groping or propositioning her.
Mr. Price said that he was so inebriated that he didn't realize that his waitress from Arety's got into a cab with him and accompanied him to his hotel room. He said that they slept in their clothes and didn't have sex. The next morning, he said, he "was shocked and surprised" to find the waitress there. "I didn't recall that she stayed," he said.
Mr. Heninger, the plaintiff's attorney, says that the waitress, Tracy Brigalia, confirmed Mr. Price's account, saying in an informal interview that she was the only woman in the hotel room that night. She also confirmed his claim that she charged about $1,000 of room-service items to Mr. Price after he left the room in the morning to play golf.
Mr. Yaeger said he tried to interview Ms. Brigalia but never reached her. She didn't return phone messages seeking comment for this article.
At his deposition, Mr. Price was asked whether, given his admittedly incomplete memory of what happened that night, it was possible that he had "engaged in sexual activity" in his hotel room. "It's possible, but very unlikely," Mr. Price replied. He explained that he didn't bring his Viagra anti-impotence medication with him to Pensacola, and, given all of his drinking that night, he wouldn't have been capable of having sex.
After the Alabama firing, Mr. Price didn't coach in 2003. He was hired last year as the head coach at the University of Texas at El Paso and led the team to an 8-4 record and a bowl-game appearance. "I can't divorce myself from the fact that I was there and made some very poor personal choices" in Pensacola, he said in an interview. But "there's all this other stuff that won't go away."
Mr. Yaeger's status at SI hasn't changed as a result of the suit, Time Inc. says. His most-recent article, in June, explored an unrelated football-recruiting scandal at the University of Alabama.
First Published July 13, 2005 12:00 am