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Defamation claim makes a point for $125

Usually, it's someone in the news threatening to sue a journalist over a controversial report.

This time, the journalist threatened to sue the newsmakers.

The city of Clearwater this month agreed to settle a defamation claim by former WFTS-Ch. 28 executive producer Mark Friedman more than a year after a Clearwater police spokesman questioned his professionalism and ethics in a letter.

Size of the settlement: $125.

Friedman, who threatened to sue Clearwater after he left WFTS for News 12 Long Island, never filed the threatened lawsuit. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

"The comment was beyond insulting," said Friedman's attorney, John Trevena. "Mark was just trying to do his job. All he did was make a public records request."

Trevena said it was a matter of principle, not money. In fact, he said, Friedman plans to frame the check rather than cash it.

In September 2002, Friedman began investigating a story about a 25-year-old case involving a man who died in a car crash while fleeing Clearwater police. An officer also died trying to stop him.

The family of the dead man has long believed he died after a beating by police officers, not in the crash. Investigators have cleared police.

Friedman made several requests for records on the case. After one of them, Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor wrote in a letter that Friedman "isn't being up front anyway, so I suspect his motives are less than honorable, and his professionalism is less than ethical."

The letter was sent to an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. After Friedman saw it, he hired Trevena.

Shelor, a former newspaper reporter, said Friday, "I'm comfortable in that I never said anything demeaning or defamatory about the gentleman."

Friedman's report never aired.

Jon Marcin, a risk management specialist with Clearwater, said the city acknowledged no wrongdoing in settling what it considered a baseless claim. Marcin said the city settled to avoid the expense of litigation.

Friedman got no apology.

"If it costs $10,000 to litigate something you can settle for $125, you're cutting off your nose to spite your face if you don't settle," Marcin said.

City Commissioner Frank Hibbard said he wondered why a lawsuit was ever threatened. "I've been called worse in church," he said.

Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton chuckled at the thought of a journalist suing after being criticized.

"I think if you're a journalist who is willing to ask tough questions and put people in uncomfortable situations and now the shoe's on the other foot," Hamilton said, "you should understand how it got there."

As for the public records, Friedman never picked them up.

The city says it's owed $450 for them.