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Ex-Trib chiefs fail in bid to oust judge

A "fishing expedition" by former managers of the Salt Lake Tribune came up empty Monday, as a federal judge rejected a call to step down from the 2-year-old lawsuit over ownership of the morning newspaper.

In Monday's 13-page order, U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart found that the Salt Lake Tribune Publishing Co.'s (SLTPC) call for his removal after a series of rulings against the management company was untimely and meritless.

"Otherwise, a party could, as in this case, extensively litigate before a court while knowing any purported basis for recusal and then bring forward those reasons only in the event it fails to prevail on the merits — behavior commonly known as 'sandbagging.' "

Though he has already rejected allegations he is unfit to oversee the case, Stewart's order details his involvement in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his experience as chief of staff to Gov. Mike Leavitt in an attempt to lay SLTPC's "hollow theories for recusal to rest."

In its January motion, SLTPC alleged Stewart, as a member of the LDS Church, has a financial stake in the outcome of the case.

The Deseret News, a party to the action and the Tribune's business partner under a 50-year-old joint operating agreement, is owned by the church. Thus, SLTPC reasoned that as a tithe-paying member of the church, Stewart stood to gain or lose if monetary damages are levied against or in favor of the Deseret News.

Stewart rejected the idea, saying when compared with the total contributions made to the church worldwide, "no reasonable person could believe that any outcome of this case would in any way affect me personally, financially or in any other way."

The judge also again rejected allegations that he has prior knowledge of the events leading to the dispute. SLTPC claimed Stewart, as the governor's former chief of staff, was aware of a telephone conversation between AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong and Leavitt about the possibility of a sale of the Tribune to the Deseret News.

"The contemplated transaction of a sale of one of the two major daily papers to the other is not something that I, or any reasonable person, would have forgotten, had its possibility been conveyed to me," Stewart wrote.

AT&T, then the owner of the Tribune, was interested in selling the newspaper and began shopping it to media outlets. Ultimately, the Deseret News declined to bid and Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc. purchased the paper for $200 million.

At the time, Stewart was up for nomination for a federal judgeship and was on his way out of the governor's office. His replacement had already been selected and was taking over the chief of staff position.

"It is possible that the governor did share the content of a conversation about a proposed purchase of the newspaper with my successor, but I am confident that he did not share it with me," the judge wrote.

SLTPC's first attempt to remove Stewart came last summer, through a confidential letter delivered to the judge's chambers. Stewart treated the letter as a motion for recusal, made it public and denied it.

In Monday's order, Stewart admonished the Tribune, at the time completely under SLTPC's management, for publishing a story about the confidential letter and sending a Tribune reporter to his Farmington home to question his neighbors about his personal life.

"This series of events . . . raises serious questions about whether (SLTPC) has raised the recusal issue in good faith, or merely in an effort to undermine the court and overturn its rulings as part of a rather clumsy attempt to shop for a more favorable judge."

SLTPC seeks to enforce a 1997 option agreement it believes gives managers the right to purchase the Tribune from MediaNews, which took daily control of the newspaper last summer. Stewart has validated the option but ruled it cannot be exercised without the consent of business partner Deseret News. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month upheld the News' veto right. The case is scheduled for trial in November.

Sale of the Salt Lake Tribune - Read Deseret News' archive stories and see related links about the sale of the Tribune.


E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com