In a multimillion-dollar libel suit against Valley Wide Newspapers, the plaintiff,the wife of a former sheriff won a ruling that she was not a public figure, athough she had a contract with San Bernardino County to provide counseling services to sheriff’s deputies. -db
San Bernardino Sun
August 23, 2010
By Mike Cruz
A Superior Court judge ruled that the wife of former Sheriff Gary Penrod was just a private citizen – and not a public figure – when a High Desert newspaper publisher ran articles about her counseling business during trial proceedings Monday in her multimillion- dollar libel lawsuit.
The ruling Monday from Judge Frank Gafkowski appears to favor Nancy Bohl, who filed a lawsuit in June 2000 against Valley Wide Newspapers publisher Raymond Pryke based on a series of articles he ran about Bohl’s business, The Counseling Team, and her relationship with Penrod.
The ruling and others from the judge stating that parts of two articles were “libel per se” and discussing a public concern came during lawyers’ arguments about pretrial motions in San Bernardino Superior Court.
“Just the fact that she is going out with him or married to him does not make her a public figure,” Bohl’s lawyer John Rowell argued in court.
The judge agreed. Even Bohl’s contract with San Bernardino County to provide counseling services to sheriff’s deputies was not enough to tilt the scale, according to the court.
Rowell said his client started her business, The Counseling Team, in 1985. The articles ran between June 1999 and April 2000 in Pryke’s community newspapers, such as the Hesperia Reporter and Adelanto Bulletin.
With headlines like “Sleeping with Penrod Pays Off” and “Sheriff Penrod Spies on Deputies,” the articles accused Bohl of leaking confidential details from counseling sessions to management at the sheriff’s department and using her relationship with Penrod to get a county contract.
Bohl has denied the allegations.
Gafkowski said the allegations about Bohl, her relationships and county contract erupted during a very short period of time and were not raised before publicly.
“She’s drawn into this involuntarily,” the judge said.
Pryke attended the hearing Monday, sitting at the table before the judge and next to his lawyer, Frank Lizarraga. Bohl and Penrod were not present.
Lizarraga argued that Bohl voluntarily put herself in the public vortex when she entered a relationship with Penrod, a public official, in 1999. News of a possible conflict were also covered in other Inland Empire newspapers, he said.
As a result of the relationship between Bohl and Penrod, the county had to change the contracting process for her business. The judge said issues may rise to level of a public concern but do not make her a public figure.
Lizarraga argued that Bohl became at least a limited public figure prior to the publication of the articles because of the vortex.
“No one forced her to have the relationship,” said Pryke’s lawyer. Bohl also thrust herself into the public vortex when she and Penrod purchased property together.
But the judge explained that Bohl did not inject herself purposely into the issues, nor did she seek to influence the situation, as a limited public figure would.
“I don’t have a situation where Ms. Bohl did anything to bring attention to herself,” Gafkowski said.
Jury selection could begin later this week, and testimony may start next week.
A judge ruled in 2005 that the articles impugned the integrity of Bohl and The Counseling Team and ordered Pryke to pay $3 million. An appeal in 2007 overturned the decision.
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