The Cleveland Jewish News filed suit against the City of Beachwood in the Ohio Supreme Court Wednesday, arguing that the East Side suburb refused to comply with public records requests related to an employee's settlement agreement in the wake of a sexual harassment allegation against Mayor Martin Horwitz.
The suit paints a picture of Beachwood officials stiff-arming journalists in an effort to protect Horwitz from scrutiny into a potentially embarrassing episode. The Mayor was already the subject of an investigation into inappropriate workplace conduct last fall. He escaped more or less unscathed
, retaining the his position with council and resident support.
The 15-page legal complaint describes repeated refusals by Beachwood Law Director Diane Calta to provide records to CJN reporters and editors.
Among the requested records: an unredacted copy of a demand letter by the employee, Whitney Crook; a copy of the settlement agreement between Beachwood and Crook; text messages between the Mayor and city council members about the agreement and about CJN's ongoing reporting; insurance claims pertaining to the settlement; and related documents.
Calta denied requests on grounds that the material requested was confidential or that the requests themselves were vague or overly broad.
CJN's reporting began in earnest in February, according to the complaint, after Publisher Kevin Adelstein heard that the Beachwood employee had made sexual harassment allegations against Horwitz and was seeking financial compensation from the city. Adelstein put Managing Editor Bob Jacob on the case, and Jacob submitted the first public records request on Feb. 13, seeking the demand letter from Whitney Crook.
Per the complaint, Jacob soon learned that "certain Beachwood officials were trying to quash CJN's reporting," particularly the sexual impropriety allegations against Horwitz.
It's unclear how officials attempted to quash CJN's reporting, beyond the law director's serial non-compliance with records requests. As the complaint makes clear, Calta denied several requests because they were supposedly too vague, but was nevertheless able to articulate precisely what CJN sought in follow-up emails. In multiple instances, Bob Jacob narrowed a request or offered additional details on what he was after, based on Calta's opinion that initial requests were overly broad. The requests were still denied.
CJN's lawyer, Karen Lefton, told Scene by email Thursday that Beachwood officials' efforts to prevent journalists from reporting on matters of public interest was "very disheartening."
"The mayor’s conduct, how it affects the city’s employees, and how much it costs the city’s taxpayers – those are all subjects the citizens of Beachwood should be informed about," Lefton wrote. "CJN journalists work hard to do just that, and they were stymied at every turn."
Lefton said CJN retained her because it became clear that no one else was looking out for the citizens of Beachwood. They believed, Lefton wrote, that officials had "shirked [their] duty in attempts to protect the inner circle."
"We hope the public officials in Beachwood will come to understand the value of an informed electorate," she concluded. "That cannot happen when lawsuits are being threatened or settled in secret. We are optimistic that this might be the start of a new day, one in which the media’s (or citizens’) right of access is respected."
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