Mayor Frank Melton doesn't have to write a check to two former Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics employees. Just yet.
After hearing a week of testimony trying to sway the amount of damages Melton must pay for libeling the two men, jurors deliberated and haggled for several hours. In the end, they couldn't agree on Friday night, and Lauderdale County Circuit Court Judge Robert Bailey declared a mistrial on the damages phase.
However, Melton has still lost the case, and the judge will set a date for a new trial on damages.
Mike Farrell, the attorney for former MBN pilot Robert Earl Pierce, said he had not expected the mistrial, especially after Melton had already lost the case because he had lied about leaking the faulty memo to a Clarion-Ledger reporter in April 2003—an act that Bailey called "heinous" last Tuesday.
I think there were lessons learned. We will try the case again, and I think we'll have a very different outcome," Farrell said. He said Pierce is in remission from cancer treatment and seems strong enough to weather a second court battle. "He's ready to continue the fight," Farrell said.
Pierce and MBN agent Jimmy Saxton are suing Melton for millions of dollars on a defamation claim after Melton leaked the memo to reporter Ana Radelat, incriminating the two for illegal plane transfers and abuse of overtime. State Auditor Phil Bryant investigated Melton's allegations, only to rule in early 2005 that the accusations were bogus.
During questioning, Buchanan and JPD Asst. Chief Roy Sandefer (formerly an MBN deputy to Melton who wrote the memo) contradicted one another's testimony. Buchanan insisted that he was not the source of the information incriminating Pierce and Saxton, while Sandefer insisted that he was.
Farrell later described it as "a very sharp contrast in testimony."
Melton's attorneys argue that the men's reputations were not damaged much—and were hardly untarnished prior to the memo.
During questioning, Melton repeatedly showed disdain for the media—which he had tried to convince the judge that he is a member of—describing both newsprint and TV media as more determined to sell headlines rather than report the truth.
Blaming the Media
Melton said on the stand that he'd never even read the article that caused all the trouble. He said he was walking through the office at WLBT and saw the headline of the MBN story. "Having not read the story, I don't know who it named. I know that sounds kind of strange because people grab the newspaper every morning. I have no interest in that," Melton said.
Melton also contradicted the assertions of Clarion-Ledger lawyers and Metro Editor Grace Simmons that the paper did not know Melton was the source of the leaked memo.
Clarion-Ledger attorney John Sneed posted on the Jackson Free Press Web site in June that "Clarion-Ledger editors did NOT know that Melton was Radelat's source." On Wednesday, Melton said Simmons contacted him right after he faxed the memo to Radelat.
"I sent (the memo) to Radelat, and if I'm not mistaken, within five minutes I got a call from Grace Simmons at The Clarion-Ledger. Didn't have a clue what the call was about. I responded to Ms. Simmons … and the conversation was, 'Frank, why did you send that article to Washington? Why didn't you send it over here to The Clarion-Ledger?' … She says, 'Ana Radelat works for me.' And I said to her, 'How?' and she said Ana Radelat was a writer for The Clarion-Ledger. That's the first time I knew Radelat was associated with The Clarion-Ledger," Melton said, adding that he then called Clarion-Ledger Editor Ronnie Agnew, demanding that the newspaper not publish the information in the memo before corroborating it.
"I said to Mr. Agnew, 'I just sent a memorandum to Ana Radelat, not knowing that she wrote for The Clarion-Ledger. This was a very confidential memorandum, which was not substantiated, was not corroborated, and it does not need to be in print.' Mr. Agnew says to me, 'Frank, I've known Ana for a long time. She is not that type of person, and she will do her own (research).' I said to Mr. Agnew, 'I will remind you that it is unsubstantiated, it has not been corroborated, and she needs to do whatever homework she needs to do.'"
In an Aug. 24, 2005, deposition, Simmons admitted that she had called Melton and complained to him about giving the memo to Radelat instead of The Clarion-Ledger. When asked by attorneys how she knew to call Melton regarding the memo, Simmons replied cryptically, "I assumed."
Sneed later wrote, "There's quite a difference between 'knowing' and 'assuming,'" adding that during the conversation Melton "neither admitted nor denied to Grace that he was Radelat's source."
Two 'Fine' Agents
One of the statements Melton made while under oath was that both of the agents were "fine" agents. Melton said he would rehire Saxton if he were still at MBN.
Farrell asked Melton to clarify why he decided to vet the memo to a reporter for corroboration when he was already heading an agency filled with professional investigators—like Sandefer and Joseph Jackson, who had left the FBI in 1992 to work as Melton's No. 2 man at WLBT, after being ordered to investigate allegations involving Melton.
"Now, if they wanted to look into allegations about the airplanes, all they had to do was go into an office in headquarters and pull those documents to begin the investigation, wouldn't they?" Farrell asked.
"I can't answer that," Melton said.
The mayor said he has "since learned" that the reporter "had already done stories on these allegations prior to me coming to the bureau," though he cut the head off his own reasoning by inserting the words "since learned"—meaning he had no such understanding of the reporter's experience at the time of the memo leak.
Melton, who had said many times in his testimony that he had no faith in the press, told Farrell that he gave Radelat the memo because he didn't trust his own investigators, whom he feared would sweep the matter under the rug, because of the "people who were allegedly involved."
"But Joe Jackson," Farrell stammered, "He's not going to sweep anything under the rug, is he?"
"And Roy Sandefer. He's not going to sweep anything under the rug, is he?"
"Absolutely, he would not."
Who, then, Farrell asked, would cover this up?
"Sir, it had already been swept under the rug," Melton answered, implying that similar allegations had been ignored in the past." Melton said it was his "discretion" as MBN director to give the memo to the press, "because it was in the best interest of the public and … the taxpayers," again paying homage to the watchdog role of the same media that he'd spent the much of the case demonizing.
Melton asserted that he was not wrong in releasing the unsubstantiated memo, decreeing that he would do things differently the next time if given the chance by instead sending "it to all the media."
"Unsubstantiated allegations?" Farrell asked.
"Why would you send it to all media?"
"Because government does what it does to protect itself. You get into politics, and you get into personal relationships. … The (only) check you have, in my opinion, is the American public," Melton said.
I saw part of the testimony on WAPT, and I had never heard anything so convoluted. As usual, I was more confused when he finished talking than when he started. Maybe the plaintiff attorneys need to just ask Melton yes/no questions or something.
Again, this man (melton) has gone too far, too fast with too little. He continues to make a mockery of this City and I feel so very sorry for those who are unable to see the elephant in the room, hiding under the green on the pool table.