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Jury Is Asked to Award $15 Million in Libel Lawsuit : Courts: Leonard M. Ross is suing Santa Barbara News-Press, New York Times Co. over reports on career.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jurors were asked Tuesday to award $15 million in damages to Beverly Hills attorney-businessman Leonard M. Ross as testimony concluded in his libel suit against the Santa Barbara News-Press and its owner, the New York Times Co., over news reports on his turbulent business career.

In closing arguments in Los Angeles Superior Court, Ross’ lawyer, Anthony M. Glassman called Ross the victim of a “hatchet job” that destroyed his reputation and efforts to establish a business and social life in Santa Barbara.

The News-Press, former business reporter Kathleen Sharp and editor David McCumber “were trying to bury Leonard Ross,” Glassman said. “They didn’t want truth to interfere in any way.”

But defense lawyer Rex Heinke said the articles told “the truth about a tough man who sues anyone who disagrees with him.” They “were unflattering because he (Ross) had been involved in things that were unflattering.”

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The panel of eight women and four men is to start deliberating today. Nine votes are required for a verdict.

The trial, which began Sept. 7, concerns news stories on Ross’ numerous court battles and past association with convicted swindler Barry S. Marlin.

The disputed reports--a November, 1988, story that filled more than a newspaper page, and a follow-up article in February, 1989--profiled the man who had become the largest shareholder in Santa Barbara Savings and Loan, then the city’s largest financial institution.

Ross, 49, contends the articles falsely linked him to the misdeeds of his former partner Marlin and had a defamatory “tenor and tone.”

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But his claim was pared by Judge Harvey A. Schneider to four disputed statements following bruising discovery battles.

Three of the statements concerned a pair of federal criminal investigations that took place in the 1970s, early in Ross’ business career. According to Ross, the News-Press falsely stated that he was a target of both probes, when in fact, he said, he was investigated once. He acknowledged the News-Press was correct in stating that he was investigated--but not charged--by the FBI, a federal grand jury and the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in the alleged extortion of business interests and other valuables from Marlin.

But Ross said the newspaper falsely linked him to a subsequent investigation of investor fraud that sent Marlin to prison.

Glassman told jurors that five former federal prosecutors and investigators had testified that Ross was not a target of the investor fraud probe.

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The fourth contested statement concerned a claim that a traffic accident that severely injured Ross’ opponent in several lawsuits was actually attempted murder.

The victim of the 1987 accident was Ross’ former attorney, Lynn B. Stites--who coincidentally is now on trial in San Diego in “the Alliance” insurance fraud and legal corruption case.

The News-Press reported that Stites had claimed in a lawsuit that Ross tried to have him killed, but that the suit was dismissed. However, the paper quoted a former Stites’ associate as saying the parking valet responsible for the accident had never been found--which Ross argued in his libel suit lent credence to the assassination claim.

Glassman told jurors that, contrary to the newspaper account, the valet did not disappear and was questioned by police.

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Contending that Sharp had referred to Ross in newsroom conversation as “a sleaze bag and a slime ball,” Glassman described the articles as a deliberate effort “to paint Mr. Ross as . . . a very bad guy.” Ross, he said, decided to fight back “out of principle, and because he has guts and determination.”

Heinke said the disputed statements were substantially true, because evidence had shown the extortion and investor fraud investigations were intertwined. Pointing to passages in easel-mounted blowups of the articles, Heinke said the stories were balanced by prominently featuring Ross’ views and those of his lawyers.

“The next-to-nothing that is at issue here shows how careful they (Sharp and McCumber) were--what a good job they did,” Heinke said. And he asked jurors to consider whether readers would have had a different opinion of Ross had the articles appeared without the four disputed statements.

Ross is seeking damages for emotional distress and damage to his reputation.

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The lawsuit was filed four years ago, and Sharp and McCumber have since left the News-Press. Sharp is a free-lance writer and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times. McCumber lives in Montana and is writing a book.


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