Will Greg Osberg’s Testimony Be the Curve Ball that Puts Bill Marimow Back in His Office?

“I didn’t hire, so I couldn’t fire him,” says former publisher.

Greg Osberg

Greg Osberg. Photo | AP/Matt Rourke

A publisher didn’t hire Bill Marimow. So a publisher didn’t have the right to fire Bill Marimow.

That, at least, was the take of the Inquirer’s once — and, possibly, future — editor on the stand Wednesday during a court hearing challenging his October firing by publisher Robert C. Hall.

It was a stance affirmed by former publisher Greg Osberg who — despite a contradictory story put out at the time — said Wednesday he had nothing to do with Marimow’s hiring. That was the work of Lewis Katz and George Norcross, then the incoming owners, now rivals in the lawsuit over Marimow’s firing. The pair make up the management committee of Interstate General Media, the ownership group which bought the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com in April of last year.

“I didn’t hire him, so I couldn’t fire him,” Osberg said.

With Norcross and Hall on one side and Katz, Marimow and fellow owner Gerry Lenfest on the other, arguments were heard yesterday before Judge Patricia McInerney in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

According to Marimow’s testimony, Norcross and Katz offered him the position during a conference call in early April 2012. He said their response to a list of requirements he’d provided them was “done, done, done.” He further testified that city editor Nancy Phillips acted as a facilitator in conversations via email.

Phillips testified that she helped craft an “official version” of the story of Marimow’s hiring that included Osberg as part of the hiring process — primarily to protect Osberg’s feelings and not, as the judge asked, to avoid a non-interference pledge.

Katz and Lenfest testified that only the management committee had the power to fire Marimow, an agreement that they say had been made clear.

Osberg testified that it was not his decision to hire Marimow and that he was not included in meetings about a possible offer. He said that he felt editors should report to the publisher (as had been the policy of the previous ownership group, Philadelphia Media Network).

In an email to Phillips on April 8, 2012, Norcross wrote: “Hope Bill doesn’t think otherwise,” referring to the agreement that Marimow must report to Osberg.

“My guess is that both will play nice in the sandbox,” Philips responded on April 8, referencing the work relationship between Marimow and Osberg.

Hall and Norcross’s team argued that due to the arrangement, Marimow was required to report to Hall once Osberg resigned six weeks after IGM became the new owners.

Attorneys for Hall claimed that Katz and Norcross had agreed to refrain from making editorial decisions, thus allowing Hall to fire Marimow.

Hall has argued that he had the power to remove Marimow on Oct. 7 because he had refused to follow Hall’s order to fire three editors and demote two others. Marimow, in his testimony, said that he did not follow the orders because the editors were effective and played a vital role for the newspapers.

Katz and Lenfest argued that Hall’s action was a business decision that required the approval of Katz and Norcross. In addition, they claim that Hall’s contract with IGM expired on August 31st and has yet to be renewed, despite his name continuing to appear on the newspapers’ masthead.

Judge McInerney must decide if Marimow should be reinsted as editor, as well as whether or not to kick Hall out the door — a decision team Hall believes will cause additional turmoil in the newspaper office.

The trial resumes today with the continuation Katz’s testimony. Norcross and Hall have not yet testified.