POSTED ON JUNE 5, 2013:
Stranger than Fiction
Silence over Tulsa World editor doing digging for CEO
The email came to David Rutkauskas not even a week before his company filed the lawsuit.
Ziva Branstetter, the Tulsa World's enterprise editor and star investigative reporter, sent Rutkauskas a complete report on the background of Sean P. Kelly, a frequent critic of Rutkauskas and the company Rutkauskas founded, Tulsa-based Beautiful Brands International, LLC.
In a word, it's "unbelievable" to Jonathan Fortman, the attorney defending Kelly against a defamation lawsuit filed on May 14, just days after Branstetter's email.
Fortman provided a copy of the email to Urban Tulsa Weekly. What he provided shows information sent from Branstetter's Tulsa World email account.
Though the email could not be independently authenticated, Branstetter did not deny having provided information about Kelly to Rutkauskas. At the Tulsa World office, Branstetter met for about five minutes with a UTW reporter but declined to comment for this story.
A search of World archives failed to reveal any stories written by Branstetter about Rutkauskas or Beautiful Brands. In an email, Rutkauskas denied having any personal or business relationship with Branstetter or her family outside of her role as a Tulsa World editor and writer.Fortman -- who said only that a "source" provided the email -- described his disbelief upon learning that his client's personal information that been shared by a World editor. The report included information on a bankruptcy, the number of Kelly's children and property records.
"I'm not looking to sue the Tulsa World or any of that. To me, it's just, you've got to be kidding me that this was done in the first place," Fortman said. "If you're a reporter, if you're a newspaper, you should be at least somewhat unbiased, and to me that is just unbelievable."
Rutkauskas did answer a few questions in a phone interview. Asked about Branstetter's email, he only remarked: "Whatever she sent me was in confidence, and I don't want to get into stuff about that."
He added: "There's no favoritism going on here, there never has been, there never will be."
Fortman said he complained about the email to Schaad Titus, an attorney who represented the World when Beautiful Brands sent a subpoena to the newspaper seeking the identity of an online commenter. The subpoena was made based on a defamation claim related to remarks made online following the publication of a World story on Beautiful Brands in February. The commenter turned out to be Kelly, who voluntarily agreed to have his name released to Beautiful Brands.
Titus declined to comment for this story when asked about any complaint against Branstetter. Joe Worley, the World's executive editor, did not respond to questions about whether the newspaper was aware of any complaint against Branstetter. Instead, Worley emailed a statement, writing that the World "will not be commenting on any of your questions."
Kelly runs UnhappyFranchisee.com, a blog devoted to criticism and reporting, written from the perspective of people who buy into franchises. On his site, Kelly has long been critical of what he perceives as softball coverage by Oklahoma media of Rutkauskas and Beautiful Brands.
On Feb. 17, the Tulsa World published a story, "Camille's empire copes with setbacks."
The story includes comments from two franchisees who complained about their experiences after buying into Beautiful Brands franchises, comments which referred to a lack of flexibility with regard to business hours and a lack of general support.
The World article also included comments from two franchisees who expressed satisfaction with their business arrangement. The story did note that "some former franchise owners have taken to the Internet to air various complaints, blaming Rutkauskas and BBI for the lack of success."
An April article in the trade publication Franchise Times included comments from two franchisees unhappy with their experience with Beautiful Brands. The company is perhaps best known for food chains Camille's Sidewalk Café and FreshBerry Frozen Yogurt Café.
The lawsuit against Kelly states that Kelly's comments posted to the World story in February as well as his writings at UnhappyFranchisee.com are "false, malicious, defamatory and libelous" and written "with an intent to cause disrepute, public hatred, contempt, ridicule and embarrassment to BBI, to deprive BBI of public confidence, and to injure BBI." The lawsuit -- which includes a signature from Rutkauskas dated May 6, apparently two days before Branstetter's email to him -- is asking for both actual and punitive damages, each in excess of $10,000.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, based in Florida, was provided by Urban Tulsa Weekly some of the World's news coverage of Beautiful Brands and the email apparently sent from Branstetter to Rutkauskas.
McBride noted that Rutkauskas "is clearly in the news because of some businesses that went sour," describing how "there's a public interest in knowing what his culpability was in all of that."
She said that seemed to be "the nature of the coverage" provided by The Tulsa World. "I don't see any evidence that they're showing this guy any sort of favoritism. It doesn't seem to me like the stories are particularly skewed," McBride said.
However, she said the question remained about Branstetter's role in shaping coverage. McBride noted that business stories have their own editors, who work independently from other editors at a newspaper. "You know, I have no idea if she's actually influencing their coverage."
As far as the apparent email detailing Kelly's personal information, "you would not expect one of your journalists to be using the resources of the newspaper to do private research for somebody else," McBride said. "That would be for the most part considered inappropriate."
Fortman described what he believes are repercussions beyond journalism ethics when Branstetter disclosed Kelly's personal information.
"It allowed Rutkauskas to send out tweets, offensive tweets that contained a picture of Sean Kelly's house, his wife's name, identifying that he'd filed for bankruptcy and a lot of stuff that's really irrelevant -- only used to try to harass," Fortman said.
Any such tweets appear to have been deleted from Rutkauskas' Twitter page. However, the website Topsy archives some tweets, and includes a few messages from Rutkauskas to the Twitter handle for Unhappy Franchisee. One states, "hows the house doing? u still sideways," while another includes the hashtags #SeanKelly and #Bankrupt while asking, "how was 2006 Sean?"
In a phone interview, Rutkauskas alluded to further developments, using the word "bombshell" and describing interest from media outlets, including the Tulsa World, in something he declined to describe in detail.
"Right now, this is a very fluid situation. There's a story that's going to be very interesting and quite ambitious here in the next couple of weeks," Rutkauskas said.
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