Editor's Note: L.A. Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning told the Business Journal on Aug. 16 that the paper distributed the full $35,000 from the Selden Ring Award to reporters that contributed to the Bell coverage. A small amount was initially set aside to fund a newsroom party, but was ultimately given to reporters, she said.
The Los Angeles Times has weathered mass buyouts, high-profile resignations, executive shakeups, and the much ridiculed rebranding of parent company tronc Inc. in the last few months.
Now, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jeff Gottlieb, 62, is alleging he was forced from the paper because of his age and “intolerable working conditions,” which led him to quit several years after breaking the Pulitzer-winning Bell corruption story.
The claims were raised in a suit he filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week, more than a year after Gottlieb announced his exit to the newsroom in an email.
“This is my final email from these treacherous waters,” read the email, obtained by media blog LA Observed and published in May 2015. “I follow nearly 100 others from editorial who have left the building in less than a year and a half. Perhaps that’s a hint there’s a problem.”
Gottlieb’s complaint alleges his bosses at the Times, including Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Davan Maharaj, committed multiple labor-related violations. Many concerns stemmed from the $35,000 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting awarded to Times reporters by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for its Bell reporting that Gottlieb alleges was never fully accounted for.
Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning said the newspaper could not confirm whether the Times had distributed the full award to reporters. She also described the lawsuit in an email as “completely without merit,” adding, “The Times did not and does not discriminate against employees on the basis of age or any other factor.”
The Times faced similar complaints of workplace hostility and age discrimination in a lawsuit filed in 2013 by former sports columnist T.J. Simers. Both Gottlieb and Simers are represented by Santa Monica attorney Carney Shegerian. The paper was originally ordered by a jury to pay Simers $7.1 million in damages, but a judge vacated the award in January. Shegerian said the new case reveals another example of age discrimination against an established Times reporter.
“It’s a disturbing pattern, to say the least – it also happens to be against the law,” he said.
Reporters are documented to have received $15,000 of the Selden Ring Award. Times management discussed using remaining funds to throw a party, but the plans fizzled out, according to Gottlieb’s suit. The allocation of the remaining $20,000 is unclear, as are any conditions about how it should have been spent. An Annenberg representative directed the Business Journal to the school’s website, which states: “A team of reporters from the Los Angeles Times has been awarded the 2011 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.”
Gottlieb’s relationship with the Times deteriorated in February 2012, according to the suit, when he began pressing higher-ups, including Maharaj, about his concerns over the prize money distribution. Relationships allegedly soured further after a 2013 Washington Post story documented the dispute.
“Maharaj stopped speaking to plaintiff,” the suit alleges. “He would pass plaintiff in the hall, glance down at his cell phone, and not say a word.”
Gottlieb’s lawsuit also quoted then-City Editor Shelby Grad describing the reporter as intractable on the prize money issue, saying, “Frankly Jeff, I’m not sure you want to resolve this.”
Upon return from a nearly eight-week medical leave to treat prostate cancer in spring 2015, Gottlieb, a Times staffer since 1997, was assigned to a low-prestige position writing obituaries. The suit also alleges that an investigative project Gottlieb filed with editors went unpublished.
Most of the reporters on the Bell story donated the money they received to Bell High School’s journalism program. Los Angeles Unified School District spokeswoman Monica Carazo confirmed that the school received $3,500 around the end of 2013, and journalism teacher Roy Lansdown said he bought video recording equipment with the funds.
“The journalism program is doing great,” he said. “I was careful not to spend it all at once.”
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