This past summer, attorney Martin Gold picked up the phone on behalf of his client Dan Rather, hoping to shed light on some of the mysteries that still surrounded CBS’s flawed report from September 2004 on President Bush’s National Guard duty.
To this end, he called a man in Albuquerque named Erik T. Rigler.
More than two years earlier, in the aftermath of what would become known as Rathergate, CBS had hired Mr. Rigler, a former Navy aviator and F.B.I. agent, in part to get to the bottom of the controversial documents at the heart of the affair. Where had the documents come from? Was the content accurate if not authentic? Who was the source?
For reasons that remain unclear, CBS eventually curtailed Mr. Rigler’s investigation. His findings were never made public. Nor, as it turns out, were they made available to Mr. Rather—a fact that years later, continued to stick in the anchorman’s craw.
According to Mr. Gold, this past summer when he reached Mr. Rigler, the investigator said he would be happy to talk but first had to run it by CBS. Weeks later, Mr. Gold hadn’t heard back. He called again. Shortly thereafter, according to Mr. Gold, he received a letter from the legal department at CBS telling him to stop harassing their client. A volley of contentious communications ensued and on Sept. 19, Mr. Rather officially gave up on phone calls and letters—he filed a $70 million civil lawsuit against his former bosses at CBS and Viacom, including Les Moonves, Sumner Redstone and Andrew Heyward.
“I tried to talk to Rigler and CBS shut me down,” said Mr. Gold.
It was Monday afternoon and Mr. Gold was on the phone with NYTV from his office in Manhattan, where he is a partner with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.
Last week, as expected, CBS lawyers filed a lengthy motion to dismiss argument in New York Supreme Court, aiming to swiftly torpedo Mr. Rather’s lawsuit.
In the motion, CBS lawyers argued that Mr. Rather’s complaint is a “thinly-disguised” defamation suit and therefore should be time-barred because of a one-year statute of limitations. They alleged that Mr. Rather’s actions were “a regrettable attempt” to “settle old scores” and that he was aiming “to misuse the discovery process and the power of subpoena in an effort to vindicate his own faulty reporting.”
Over the course of a half-hour, Mr. Gold dismissed CBS’ “frivolous” arguments and said he was confident the lawsuit would move forward. Along the way, he hesitated to discuss many details of his legal strategy, but conceded one thing: He intended on hearing from Mr. Rigler.
“There’s no question about that,” said Mr. Gold. “We’ll be very interested in taking his testimony and subpoenaing his records.”
“The more they try heaven and earth to prevent me from talking to the guy, the more it becomes highly charged,” he added. “The more I want to talk to him.”
“Dan Rather is one of the most important figures in the history of broadcast journalism, and for more than 40 years was one of our most valued colleagues,” CBS said in a statement last week. “That is why we at CBS are mystified and saddened by the baseless and self-serving allegations and distortions of fact raised in his lawsuit.”
For his part, Mr. Gold proceeded to pick apart CBS’ legal argument. He said that while the suit was in large part about addressing damages to Mr. Rather’s reputation, CBS was wrong to portray it as a defamation suit in disguise.
“What they’re saying is that you can’t dress up one kind of claim in some other claim’s clothing and get past the statute of limitations,” said Mr. Gold. “Of course you can’t. But it’s not a defamation. What we’ve alleged is a scheme.”
In their recent motion, CBS lawyers note that “no such nefarious scheme” existed between the White House and CBS executives. According to the motion, “CBS and its executives are not now, and never have been, out to get Dan Rather.”
For the most part, Mr. Rather’s initial complaint lacked specific allegations about how the White House might have leaned on CBS chieftains in the aftermath of the flawed report. Did Mr. Gold have any more evidence of such collusion?
Mr. Gold noted that at the time of the initial controversy, CBS’ then parent company, Viacom, had more money on the line in Washington than the entire value of the CBS News division. But he declined to discuss specifics. “All I can say is that more stuff keeps coming in,” he said. “The answer is, yes, there’re more.”
Mr. Gold suggested that in recent months he was surprised by the culture of secrecy at CBS News. He said that Mr. Rigler was hardly the only person hiding behind one of CBS’ “patented agreements of secrecy” that he kept running into. “Who do these guys think they are?” said Mr. Gold. “The National Security Agency?”
According to Mr. Gold, his client, Mr. Rather, was under no such restrictions. “We made it perfectly clear to them that they weren’t going to pay him extra money and get him to sign a non-disparagement release,” said Mr. Gold.
He declined to say what it would take for Mr. Rather to settle the suit but insisted that the complaint was about more than the $70 million.
“In the wake of what’s happened to Rather, there have been important investigative stories that haven’t been broadcast,” said Mr. Gold. “Because the people involved say, ‘If this is what happened to Dan Rather, what’s going to happen to little old me?’”
“He was the poster boy for the liberal journalist that they wanted to get rid of,” said Mr. Gold. “Today the climate has changed. Somewhat.”