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Clearwater Gazette's retraction may not avert lawsuit by Largo officials

LARGO — The Clearwater Gazette printed a blurb Thursday to appease three high-level Largo staffers who threatened to sue over a story that claimed "Largo, pound for pound, is the most corrupt city in America."

But it's not clear if the retraction of statements by former Gazette writer Leo Coughlin will avert a lawsuit.

The retraction acknowledges that Coughlin used "strong language" and that he "went too far in inserting" his opinion in what was supposed to be a news story.

But City Manager Mac Craig said he didn't think the retraction was strong enough.

"I want them to say they don't have any reason to believe there's mass corruption or any corruption in Largo," Craig said.

He's not sure if he will pursue litigation and he won't know until later this week, he said. Craig plans to discuss the matter with the other officials offended by Coughlin's comments, Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert and finance director Kim Adams, and their attorney, Alan Zimmet, who is also the city attorney.

"As I remember, Alan's letter required a retraction and an apology. But I didn't see an apology." Craig said.

Adams, however, is satisfied. He said he's willing to move on because the Gazette took a firm stand and Coughlin no longer works there.

"I appreciate them owning up to the fact that the reporter probably misspoke," Adams said.

In a letter to Zimmet, the Gazette's attorney, Robert G. Walker Jr., said Coughlin's "pound for pound" comment could not "result in legal damages because it would be unreasonable for a reasonable reader to believe it."

Walker also wrote that his client, editor Sandy Pollick, usually reads articles for her publication, but did not read that one.

If she had, she informed him, the paper wouldn't have printed that comment, he said.

Coughlin regularly wrote stories and a column in the Gazette called "Around Here." Coughlin also had an online site for a while.

His stories often included controversial material. For example, he once accused Craig of following Hitler's tactics. And Mayor Pat Gerard said a couple of years ago Coughlin concocted a story that falsely claimed her husband was working on another candidate's campaign.

Last week, Coughlin forwarded an e-mail to Belleair officials announcing his departure from the paper. The correspondence to Pollick indicated that it was his choice to leave. He accused her of being intimidated by Zimmet, who represents "a city whose officials do not want certain information in the public print."

In an e-mail to a reporter Thursday, Coughlin said he left out of concern for Pollick and the Gazette because he heard from a third party that she was worried about a suit. Pollick has declined to comment.

Possibly for the first time, Coughlin and Craig agree on something. Coughlin also doesn't think the blurb in the Gazette is much of a retraction.

Pollick "does not retract or apologize for any of my writing, but indicates that language I used was, in her opinion, too strong for Gazette tastes," Coughlin wrote.

Pollick, he said, "has the absolute right to govern what language she will allow in that publication."

Clearwater Gazette's retraction may not avert lawsuit by Largo officials 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 11:53am]
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