VA: Former Newport News Airport Director Accuses Newspaper of Defamation

April 06–The former executive director of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is seeking to amend his pending defamation lawsuit to add the Daily Press as a defendant.

Ken Spirito — who led the airport for eight years before being fired last May — sued the Peninsula Airport Commission and several past and present employees in January. He said the employees and a commissioner defamed him when they exchanged text messages in early 2017 about airport document shredding.

Spirito asserts that the text messages gave "the false implication" that he was shredding evidence related to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s then-pending audit centered on a $5 million loan guarantee to People Express Airlines in 2014.

But Spirito says he was doing nothing of the kind. In one case, he says, he was merely shredding "old, duplicate airline presentations" that still existed on his work computer. And in another case, he says, the "shredding" didn’t happen at all — made up whole cloth by a fired employee.

Claims against Daily Press

Named as defendants in the original January lawsuit were the Peninsula Airport Commission, accounting specialist Lisa M. Ortiz, finance and administration director Renee Ford, former airport supervising janitor Wilmer K. Thomas Jr., and Newport News City Councilwoman — and airport commissioner — Sharon P. Scott.

Though the Daily Press was mentioned frequently in the lawsuit, it wasn’t named as a defendant.

But on Monday, Spirito’s attorney, David Littel of Virginia Beach, asked a judge to allow him to amend the complaint so the Daily Press can be added. He also seeks to more than double the damages sought to $9.35 million.

"The Daily Press targeted (Spirito) and commenced a relentless defamatory campaign against him, publishing false allegations about financial misconduct and shredding of evidence, and splashing these false allegations across the front page of its publication," the original lawsuit asserted.

Spirito contends the Daily Press castigated him by way of news stories, a front-page graphic and an editorial — even as he asserts that "emails and other documents conclusively show" that he attempted "more diligently than any other individual" to protect the airport from financial losses.

The lawsuit cites a graphic in the Daily Press’ June 3 edition that covered "approximately two-thirds of the front page." That graphic featured pictures of documents that would look "to a reasonable person" as containing evidence regarding the VDOT audit. "Overlaid over the image of these documents were ‘screen shots’ of the text messages" about "Ken" shredding documents.

The lawsuit also cites an accompanying Daily Press news story about the audit results. The story reads in part: "The auditors … reported that they had received two separate reports that former airport executive director Ken Spirito had shredded and destroyed documents after they asked for records about the payment."

The former executive director of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is suing the Peninsula Airport Commission and three current and former airport employees, accusing them of defaming him last year.

Ken Spirito — who led the airport from early 2009 until his termination in May — contends…

The former executive director of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is suing the Peninsula Airport Commission and three current and former airport employees, accusing them of defaming him last year.

Ken Spirito — who led the airport from early 2009 until his termination in May — contends…

The lawsuit further cites a Daily Press editorial on the same day: "This goes beyond losing jobs," the editorial says. "The next question, in light of this audit, becomes whether Spirito or anyone else needs to be brought up on charges. Whether anyone needs to go to prison. Yes, it’s that serious."

Spirito asserts that the editorial, "in conjunction with the front page allegations of the same date," falsely implies that Spirito "committed a crime in the shredding of documents."

As a result of all the defamatory statements, the suit says, Spirito’s reputation and once-promising aviation career have been destroyed.

Under U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the legal bar to defame a public official is higher than for an ordinary person. To defame a public official, a defendant must either know the statement was false or demonstrate a "reckless disregard" for the truth.

"All of the defamatory statements published by The Daily Press … were made maliciously, with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity," the proposed amendment says.

The Daily Press’ coverage about the document shredding was based in large part on VDOT’s June 2 audit report that included redacted versions of the text message exchanges.

Marisa Porto, the Daily Press publisher and editor-in-chief, said Friday: "We have diligently reported on the airport situation from the beginning, and we stand behind our reporting."

Judge must decide

Adding the Daily Press as a defendant in the case is not a done deal.

Williamsburg-James City Circuit Court Judge Michael McGinty must approve adding a new defendant. Moreover, the Peninsula Airport Commission (PAC) — which is asking that the lawsuit be tossed — is expected to object to the Daily Press being added, given that adding a new party would cause delays and complications to the case.

McGinty is scheduled to hear oral arguments April 13 on the PAC’s motion to toss the case. But Littel has asked that the hearing be put on hold in light of his request to add a new defendant.

Conrad M. Shumadine, a lawyer representing the airport commission, declined to comment Friday. But if McGinty rejects adding the Daily Press as a defendant to the case, Spirito would have to sue the paper separately.

Shredding allegations

The airport’s financial practices came under scrutiny in early 2017 after the Daily Press reported that the airport commission had quietly guaranteed the $5 million loan from TowneBank to People Express in 2014. After the airline collapsed a couple months later, the commission used $4.5 million in taxpayer money to pay off the debt.

Early last year, VDOT launched an investigation into that loan guarantee.

The lawsuit says that although Spirito tried to protect the airport, "the reporting in The Daily Press was telling a different story" — blaming Spirito for the problems. Then, according to the lawsuit, "certain disgruntled PAC employees began a digital whispering campaign" of "unfounded innuendo" that Spirito was destroying important evidence.

One morning in early March — about five weeks after the state audit began — Ortiz texted her boss, Ford, expressing surprise that Spirito was shredding documents, according to text messages uncovered by the state audit.

"Wow Ken is shredding shredding shredding," Ortiz wrote at 8:28 a.m. on March 2.

Ford texted back: "Unbelievable!"

Ortiz: "Seems kind of weird."

Ford: "This is getting out of hand!"

Later that afternoon, the Peninsula Airport Commission put Spirito on paid administrative leave, then fired him in May. The shredding was not cited as one of the reasons for his termination.

In 2014 the Peninsula Airport Commission quietly voted to use taxpayer funds to guarantee a $5 million line of credit for the longshot startup People Express Airlines. The airline launched in June 2014, but went out of business within three months, after drawing $4.5 million on the line of credit,…

In 2014 the Peninsula Airport Commission quietly voted to use taxpayer funds to guarantee a $5 million line of credit for the longshot startup People Express Airlines. The airline launched in June 2014, but went out of business within three months, after drawing $4.5 million on the line of credit,…

The VDOT audit report also references a second shredding account. Documents show that Thomas — a former airport janitorial supervisor — sent a Facebook message to Scott, with the councilwoman saying she received it on March 17.

"I know about the paper shredding at the airport!" Thomas wrote in the message at 1:15 p.m. that day.

Scott replied immediately: "Thanks for sharing! Will call you later!"

Scott referred his message to state auditors.

Thomas messaged Scott again in April: "I told you … that I (know) about the paper shredding a couple of weeks ago," he wrote. "I saw (airport marketing director Jessica Wharton) and Ken coming from the shredder when I walked in the office after 8 p.m. Then was let go about 2 weeks later without a write-up."

Spirito contends that on the March 2 incident, he was simply shredding "hard copies of some old, duplicate airline presentations," which remained on PAC computers after he was done shredding them, with "absolutely nothing improper" about it.

Thomas’ shredding story, the complaint says, was a "complete fabrication." It says the janitorial supervisor was fired on Feb. 14 "for making inappropriate comments to an airline employee," and that he was disgruntled when he sent the messages to Scott.

In an interview with the Daily Press after Spirito’s lawsuit in January, Thomas stood by his story.

Hampton University’s spring scrimmage at Armstrong Stadium on Friday, April 6, 2018.

Hampton University’s spring scrimmage at Armstrong Stadium on Friday, April 6, 2018.

Hampton University’s spring scrimmage at Armstrong Stadium on Friday, April 6, 2018.

Hampton University’s spring scrimmage at Armstrong Stadium on Friday, April 6, 2018.

Children’s food allergies develop from a combination of genetics that alter skin absorbency, infant cleansing wipes that leave soap on the skin, skin exposure to allergens in dust and skin exposure to food by caregivers, according to a new study. Photo by marvelmozhko/Pixabay April 6 (UPI) — Children’s food allergies have been linked to genetics and environmental factors, including cleaning wipes and exposure to allergens, according to a study. Researchers at Northwestern University found the allergies develop from a combination of genetics that alter skin absorbency, infant cleansing wipes that leave soap on the skin, skin exposure to allergens in dust and skin exposure to food by caregivers.

Children’s food allergies develop from a combination of genetics that alter skin absorbency, infant cleansing wipes that leave soap on the skin, skin exposure to allergens in dust and skin exposure to food by caregivers, according to a new study. Photo by marvelmozhko/Pixabay April 6 (UPI) — Children’s food allergies have been linked to genetics and environmental factors, including cleaning wipes and exposure to allergens, according to a study. Researchers at Northwestern University found the allergies develop from a combination of genetics that alter skin absorbency, infant cleansing wipes that leave soap on the skin, skin exposure to allergens in dust and skin exposure to food by caregivers.

Tim Tebow is once again making noise in the minor leagues. After a spring training stint with the New York Mets, Tebow was assigned to the team’s AA affiliate — the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. And his Rumble Ponies debut was one to remember. With two runners on as he stepped to the plate for his first at bat in AA baseball, Tebow swung at the first pitch he saw and hit it out of the park. Then, when moved up in June of last year to join the St. Lucie Mets, Tebow again hit a ball over the fence in his first day on the job. Now at his highest level of minor league play yet, Tebow is once again immediately proving that his assignment comes as more than a simple publicity stunt. While his initial stint with the Mets during spring training was met with mixed reviews — many saw his presence and potential call-up as little more than a publicity stunt — if he can keep swinging for the fences, his Major League dream might become a reality.

Tim Tebow is once again making noise in the minor leagues. After a spring training stint with the New York Mets, Tebow was assigned to the team’s AA affiliate — the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. And his Rumble Ponies debut was one to remember. With two runners on as he stepped to the plate for his first at bat in AA baseball, Tebow swung at the first pitch he saw and hit it out of the park. Then, when moved up in June of last year to join the St. Lucie Mets, Tebow again hit a ball over the fence in his first day on the job. Now at his highest level of minor league play yet, Tebow is once again immediately proving that his assignment comes as more than a simple publicity stunt. While his initial stint with the Mets during spring training was met with mixed reviews — many saw his presence and potential call-up as little more than a publicity stunt — if he can keep swinging for the fences, his Major League dream might become a reality.

This week, we asked DP Buzz readers to send us their favorite line/line(s)/stanza from any piece of poetry in recognition of National Poetry Month, which runs throughout April.

Mike Holtzclaw even reads a few lines from his favorite poem.

You can join the DP Buzz conversation by emailing mholtzclaw@dailypress.com. He emails questions to readers on Tuesday afternoons.

All responses will appear on Friday evenings at www.dailypress.com/opinion; as many responses as space permits will appear in print on Saturday’s op-ed page.

Answers should be limited to 50 words or less (or we’ll have to cut them) and include your first and last name and city of residence at the end of the response. Answers may be edited for clarity and style.

To be considered for publication, we must receive answers by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Please feel free to forward this message to others who may wish to join our email list. And don’t forget to follow Daily Press Editorial Board on Twitter.

This week, we asked DP Buzz readers to send us their favorite line/line(s)/stanza from any piece of poetry in recognition of National Poetry Month, which runs throughout April.

Mike Holtzclaw even reads a few lines from his favorite poem.

You can join the DP Buzz conversation by emailing mholtzclaw@dailypress.com. He emails questions to readers on Tuesday afternoons.

All responses will appear on Friday evenings at www.dailypress.com/opinion; as many responses as space permits will appear in print on Saturday’s op-ed page.

Answers should be limited to 50 words or less (or we’ll have to cut them) and include your first and last name and city of residence at the end of the response. Answers may be edited for clarity and style.

To be considered for publication, we must receive answers by 5 p.m. Thursday.

Please feel free to forward this message to others who may wish to join our email list. And don’t forget to follow Daily Press Editorial Board on Twitter.

Ongoing construction for the widening of Interstate 64 continues with geotechnical work currently underway for the third segment of construction that will add another 8.25. miles of expanded roadways to the interstate.

Ongoing construction for the widening of Interstate 64 continues with geotechnical work currently underway for the third segment of construction that will add another 8.25. miles of expanded roadways to the interstate.

Peter Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749 or by email at pdujardin@dailypress.com

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