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The Axe Falls at ABC-40

Investigative reporter and union steward Jim Polito isn't sure why he was fired. He hopes the National Labor Relations Board can help him find out.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Late in the afternoon on the Thursday before Christmas, Jim Polito was working at his desk in the WGGB/Channel 40 newsroom. Polito, who's been an investigative reporter and sometime anchor at the station for eight years, had already wrapped up his assignments for that evening's newscast and was catching up on his email while he waited to do some on-air reports during the 5 and 6 o'clock shows, he says.

That, Polito says, is when Kathy Tobin, the station's news director, approached his desk. She told him that John Gormally, the station's new owner, wanted to see him. He might want to bring along a representative from his union, she added.

Polito asked fellow reporter Jim Cline, a steward in the union, to join him. Walking to the conference room where the meeting was to take place, Polito says, he told his colleague: "Jim, I'm going to get fired."

Cline dismissed his prediction, Polito says. But sure enough, when Polito got to the conference room, Gormally was waiting for him. "Jim, we're going to terminate your employment this day. Things are just not working out," Polito says Gormally told him. The station's CFO handed Polito a final paycheck and told him his health insurance would be extended for two more weeks.

As Polito stood up to leave, he says, Gormally stood, too. "Jim, I want you to know that I always respected your work and I wish you the best," he says Gormally told him. Gormally extended his hand, and Polito shook it.

While Cline was surprised, Polito says, "I wasn't shocked. I felt as if the sword of Damocles was lifted from over my head."

Polito had known he was on thin ice with the station's new owner for weeks. Gormally had given him a written termination warning in late November and Polito had already cleaned out his desk in anticipation of the axe falling.

It wasn't the first axe to fall. Since Gormally, publisher of BusinessWest, bought WGGB in early November, he's fired 10 employees, according to the union (Gormally told the Springfield Republican it was only six), and demoted a number of others.

Union officials say Gormally told them that the cuts were a cost-saving measure imposed on him by lenders who helped him finance the purchase. Union members say that Gormally let go or demoted several workers who held leadership roles in the union. And Gormally—as is his right by law—has opted not to recognize the contract the union had negotiated with the station's previous owner, Sinclair Broadcasting. (See "Off the Air," Dec. 20, 2007, www.valleyadvocate.com.) The union, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians Local 19, has filed several complaints against Gormally with the National Labor Relations Board, including one over Polito's firing.

Gormally declined to be interviewed by the Advocate, other than to offer an emailed statement: "Mr. Polito's [sic] was terminated from WGGB for a variety of reasons that I cannot get into. I can tell you that it had nothing whatsoever to do with unions. Any assertion to the contrary is without merit."

Polito might not be the first employee to be fired by Channel 40's new owner, but he's certainly the most high-profile. In his eight years at the station, Polito, like many on-air reporters and anchors, has achieved a degree of local celebrity, judging local battles of the bands, lending his name and time to fundraisers for the Molly Bish Center for the Protection of Children.

But it's his investigative reporting that's distinguished Polito, and won him both awards and enemies—most notably, Anthony Ardolino, the one-time chief of staff to former Springfield Mayor Mike Albano. In the spring of 2005, Polito had reported on the sentencing of Ardolino's older brother Chester, then a city cop, who several months earlier had been found guilty on seven counts, including real estate fraud and money laundering. The next day, according to Polito, the younger Ardolino approached him and told him: "It's a good thing that you own a gun because you are going to need it after the way that you reported last night."

Polito filed a criminal complaint against Ardolino in district court. A few months later, he dropped the charge after Ardolino, who had pleaded innocent, agreed to donate $750 to the American Red Cross. Both Ardolino brothers are now in federal prison, after pleading guilty last year to tax fraud and conspiracy charges.

In a written rebuttal Polito prepared in response to the termination warning he received in November and included as a supporting document to a National Labor Relations Board complaint he has since filed, he describes another story he was pursuing that same year—one, Polito says, in which he found himself looking at the man who, unbeknownst to either of them, would one day be his boss: Gormally.

In that rebuttal, Polito writes about reporting he did in 2005 on then-Chicopee Mayor Richard Goyette in which he looked at Goyette's campaign finance records, as well as his role in approving billboard permits during his time as a Chicopee alderman.

In the spring of 2003, Gormally had applied to the Chicopee Board of Aldermen for a special permit for a billboard on Memorial Drive on behalf of his company, BusinessWest. It was a closely watched vote; the aldermen had recently voted to cap the number of billboards in the city at 31, and only five remained up for grabs. According to a Springfield Republican article at the time, Gormally's proposal had only six of the nine votes needed for approval going into the meeting.

Still, his permit was granted, thanks to a parliamentary move engineered by Alderman Brant DuBois. DuBois, the newspaper reported, knowing Gormally's application didn't have the votes to pass, moved instead to table it. By law, the board needs to act on special permit applications within 90 days of their filing; if the board fails to act within that time period, the permit application is automatically granted, with no restrictions. Because the board was not scheduled to meet again before the end of Gormally's 90-day period, the move to table it ensured that his permit would be granted.

"DuBois said he made the motion to table the BusinessWest vote as a parliamentary move to assure its passage, knowing there were five opponents," the Republican reported. Six other aldermen joined DuBois in voting to table the vote, including Goyette. Alderman Jean Croteau, who opposed the granting of Gormally's permit, described the move by his colleagues as "sneaky."

That fall, as Goyette was running for his first term as mayor, his campaign finance reports show that he rented a billboard on I-391 from BusinessWest, at a cost of $4,200. The bill shows up as an unpaid liability on an October, 2003 finance report; the bill is reported paid in a report filed the subsequent January, as Goyette began his first (and, it would turn out, only) term as mayor.

Goyette's finance reports also show that Gormally had donated $500—the maximum annual donation allowed by law—to his campaigns in 2003 and in 2005.

Gormally's support for Goyette was more than monetary. In its Oct. 31, 2005, edition, BusinessWest ran an editorial, signed by Gormally, endorsing Goyette in his run for a second mayoral term against challenger Michael Bissonnette. "Goyette has some work to do building the kinds of partnerships needed to move any agenda forward, but we believe that he is the best the [sic] answer for Chicopee," Gormally wrote in the endorsement, which jabbed Bissonnette for "[making] a career out of running for public office but not winning it. ...

"[Goyette] is not the lesser of two evils, as some have suggested, but the community's best hope for real leadership," Gormally wrote. On Nov. 1, 2005—one day after the endorsement's publication date, and seven days before the election—Goyette was arrested by the FBI on charges of accepting $10,000 in bribes from two city business owners. In June of 2007, shortly before his trial was to begin, Goyette pleaded guilty to two counts of extortion; he's now in federal prison.

In its Nov. 14, 2005, edition, BusinessWest ran another editorial—this one unsigned—noting the magazine's "disappointment" at the news of Goyette's arrest. "There was much surprise at the news, and much anger as well. After all, BusinessWest did endorse Goyette for a second term as mayor, believing that he had the leadership skills and common sense needed to move the community forward. We, like many Chicopee residents, feel betrayed and misled," the editorial read.

Polito says he dropped his work on the story after Goyette's arrest, and before he had contacted Gormally for an interview to discuss his relationship with the now-disgraced, now-former mayor. Polito says that he had told a friend who worked at BusinessWest that he was looking into the relationship, and that the friend told him she had passed that information on to Gormally.

Asked if he thinks his reporting on Gormally's relationship with Goyette contributed to his firing, Polito said, "I can't answer that." He included the incident in his rebuttal document on the advice of a union attorney and some attorney friends to "have it on the record, so that it has context," he said. Polito has given that rebuttal to the National Labor Relations Board as a supporting document in his case against Gormally.

"This was a unique situation, that the station was bought by a person I [had earlier been] investigating," Polito said.

Pressed on the question of whether Polito's reporting on Gormally's relationship with Goyette had any bearing on his firing, Gormally refused to comment on the record.

 

Polito says he and Gormally never discussed his reporting on the Goyette matter. But the reporter and the new owner were butting heads soon after Gormally took over the station.

In late November, Polito says, Gormally called him into his office and informed him that a fellow employee had written a complaint letter saying Polito had threatened her in the parking lot behind the station. While Gormally, according to Polito, never named the employee or showed him the letter, the reporter assumed it was Angela Pratt, a production assistant at the station, with whom he'd had a conversation about union matters in the station's parking lot the week before.

Shortly after that, Gormally gave Polito the warning letter, in which he named Pratt as the complainant and said he'd interviewed her about the incident "and [found] her allegations to have merit and that you acted in an inappropriate manner.

"Further, it has been reported to me that you have been involved in similar hostile encounters with other employees. Such behavior will not be tolerated," the letter continued.

Gormally ordered Polito to have no further contact with Pratt. The owner also wrote that in an earlier meeting with Polito, the reporter had used "profanity and other inappropriate language to describe events that had taken place. You are hereby placed on notice that profanity is not accepted in our business environment and may result in your termination." He also chastised Polito for "a long history of making disparaging remarks regarding WGGB, Sinclair and your immediate supervisor, Kathy Tobin. ... They cannot continue."

Gormally ended the letter with a warning: "[Y]ou are hereby given notice that the next meritorious complaint from a co-worker accusing you of harassment or bullying or inappropriate behavior will result in your immediate termination."

Polito contends that he never harassed or threatened Pratt. When he'd run into her in the parking lot, he says, she was heading to a meeting with Tom Bevacqua, Local 19's president and Channel 40's former chief meteorologist, who was holding office hours at a restaurant across the street. Polito believed Pratt had been discussing union matters with Gormally while union officials had been trying without much luck to hammer out a new contract with the owner. So, Polito wrote in his rebuttal, he asked her, "Could you do me a favor and stop trying to bargain for the Union with John Gormally?

"She answered defensively and claimed she was not speaking on behalf of the Union," but rather was talking with Gormally about a personal raise, Polito wrote.

Contacted by the Advocate about her complaint, Pratt said simply, "No comment."

Polito denied using any more colorful language than can be found in any newsroom, and added that, while he certainly can be passionate about his work, he does not bully others. Most important, he says, he did not violate any of the conditions set out by Gormally in the warning letter.

"If you asked me, 'Why do you think you got fired?' my answer would be, 'I don't really know. That's what I want to find out in front of the Labor Relations Board,' " Polito said in an interview.

 

One thing is certain, said Bill Murray, NABET Local 19's agent at the union's Washington headquarters: If Gormally had recognized the existing union contract when he bought the station, he would not have been able to fire Polito the way he did.

"He was fired basically at will, was called in and [told], 'It's not working out, and you're fired,'" Murray said. "If we'd had [a contract] in place, that wouldn't have happened to Jim." Murray said that the old contract protected union members from being fired without cause and provided a grievance process—protections that would have been applicable to Polito as a union member.

Local 19 is hoping to reach a new contract with Gormally; a bargaining meeting with the owner is set for Feb. 14. The union, Murray said, is looking for the basic job protections it had under its previous contract with Sinclair, such as the right to grievance and arbitration processes and the guarantee that firings must be for just cause.

Polito remains a union steward and will continue to take part in contract negotiations, he said. He knows that activists with the local AFL-CIO labor council are considering calling for a boycott of Channel 40. While he's grateful for the support, he said, "I've said, 'Don't do that, because you're going to hurt my friends and coworkers.' Despite what Mr. Gormally did to me, I want him to succeed, because I have friends who work there."

Meanwhile, Polito is pursuing his case before the National Labor Relations Board. "My objective right now is to clear my name through the labor board and get my job back," he said. "I know people are saying, 'What did [he] do that was so wrong that he got fired five days before Christmas?' I want to know that, too."

mturner@valleyadvocate.com

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