Salt Lake Tribune reporters say in recently filed court documents that a former top manager at the paper, despite his assertions to the contrary, provided them with confidential details for a story published last summer.

In separate affidavits filed this week in the ongoing lawsuit over ownership of the Tribune, reporters Elizabeth Neff and Michael Vigh say Randy Frisch spoke on the record about the contents of a letter sent to the chambers of U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart.

The letter raised concerns about the judge's impartiality and questioned his continued position as overseer of the case.

According to Vigh's affidavit, "Mr. Frisch informed me that SLTPC had sent a letter to Judge Stewart concerning his possible recusal, and he described to me the contents of the recusal letter."

Frisch, then the Tribune's chief operating officer, did not give Vigh or Neff a copy of the correspondence.

Attorneys for new Tribune owner MediaNews Group Inc. included the affidavits with their opposition to a motion filed last month by Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co. — the third for former Tribune managers — to remove Stewart from the case.

In the latest attempt at recusal, SLTPC contends that Stewart's comment in a March 17 order denying managers' second motion make clear he is too biased to continue presiding over the case.

In that order, Stewart noted that SLTPC's repeated efforts appear to be "part of a rather clumsy attempt to shop for a more favorable judge."

According to SLTPC, the statements "indicate that Judge Stewart harbors actual bias, or at least appears to be biased, against SLTPC due to erroneous conclusions Judge Stewart has drawn about SLTPC based on matters that have occurred outside the proceedings in this case."

In addition to taking note of the article by Vigh and Neff, Stewart admonished the Tribune for sending Vigh to his Farmington home to question his neighbors about the judge's personal life.

Vigh, who had covered the ongoing lawsuit since nearly its beginning more than two years ago, was fired last week over an unrelated matter.

SLTPC accused Stewart of "jumping to the conclusion" that someone at SLTPC leaked the confidential letter to Vigh and Neff.

In a sworn affidavit included with last month's motion, Frisch states: "Neither I nor, to the best of my knowledge, anyone else associated with SLTPC, had any role or involvement in providing a copy of the May 13 letter to anyone at the Tribune."

MediaNews attorneys take issue with that statement in Monday's filing. "Mr. Frisch, not anyone else, was, in SLTPC's own words, the 'malefactor' who leaked the substance of the sealed letter — knowing full well that the reporter to whom he disclosed the substance would prepare a story about the letter and investigate the matters that it raised."

The MediaNews documents, as well as a memorandum from Deseret News attorneys, call SLTPC's latest recusal motion another meritless attempt to find a more favorable judge.

"The court has already concluded that the first two motions were wholly without merit, and this third motion is nothing more than an attempt to manufacture bias out of the court's denial of the last motion," MediaNews' attorneys wrote.

Deseret News attorneys concurred. "SLTPC's attempt to manufacture a case of bias out of the court's statements is blatant judge-shopping. Indeed, it is one more maneuver in a campaign to bait the court and bully it off the case."

SLTPC, which first filed the lawsuit in December 2000, attempts to enforce a 1997 option agreement it believes gives managers the right to purchase the Tribune from MediaNews. The Denver-based company purchased the Tribune from AT&T in January 2001.

Stewart has validated SLTPC's option, but he has also ruled it cannot be exercised without the consent of the Deseret News, the Tribune's business partner under a 50-year-old joint operating agreement. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the veto right, and the case is scheduled for trial in November.

Sale of the Salt Lake Tribune - Read Deseret News' archive stories and see related links about the sale of the Tribune.


E-mail: awelling@desnews.com