“No One Can Be Switzerland, and I’m on Norcross’s Side”

Today publisher Bob Hall took the stand in the Inquirer ownership case.

When Michael Lorenca was feeling anxious over escalating tension between warring Inquirer owners Lewis Katz and George Norcross, he sought advice.

“This lawsuit is allied versus axis powers,” publisher Bob Hall allegedly told him. “No one can be Switzerland. And I’m on Norcross’s side.”

Lorenca, Hall’s associate publisher, decided to simply vacate the map altogether, resigning, effectively, at the end of this month.

This story emerged today while Hall was under cross-examination from attorneys representing Katz and fellow owner H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest in their suit against Hall and Interstate General Media, a consortium of businessmen including Jersey political power broker and insurance titan Norcross. Hall said he could not recall his exact wording to Lorenca, but essentially confirmed the account given by Katz’s lawyers, adding that he supported Norcross because “Norcross was on my side” to do what he felt needed to be done.

The anecdote seemed to capture the absurdity of the hearings underway in courtroom 630 of City Hall, where a baker’s dozen of lawyers — eight representing Team Norcross, five backing Team Katz — gathered this Wednesday to begin proceedings that many thought would last one day but will now stretch to the middle of next week. In a dispute that is largely built around a simple rivalry between two men, Katz and Norcross, some liken it to a world war.

The backstory was essentially restated today, with Hall on the stand.

Last summer, Hall submitted a list of “action items” for Inquirer editor Bill Marimow to complete, ranging from assisting in a redesign and bettering relations with philly.com to firing some of his top lieutenants. Marimow’s battle cry was “evolution not revolution.” He proceeded, but sometimes too slowly for Hall’s liking and sometimes not at all. What Marimow wouldn’t do is fire a trio of his editors, so Hall, after months of haggling, fired Marimow. And the media company’s leadership split into factions.

The battle lines are drawn something like this:

Team Norcross, which supports the firing of Marimow, includes Hall and the other three owners of the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, tech CEO Kris P. Singh, insurance exec Joseph Buckelew and Liberty Trust CEO Bill Hankowsky.

Team Katz includes the parking entrepreneur, who has backed Marimow fully; Katz’s longtime girlfriend, now Inquirer city editor Nancy Phillips, who is a longtime supporter of Marimow; the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist; and cable mogul Lenfest.

Katz and Lenfest filed suit on October 10th for a mandatory injunction that would reinstate Marimow as editor of the Inquirer and remove Hall as publisher. The suit names Hall and IGM, who last spring ponied up $55 million to acquire the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com, as defendants.

The Katz-Lenfest suit claims Hall didn’t have the authority to fire Marimow, highlighting the operating agreement they signed on to as members of IGM, which states that a two-man management committee — comprised of Katz and Norcross — will oversee the company with the “right, power and authority to make decisions with respect to all business and operational matters.”

Katz, in a total of roughly seven hours on the stand on Tuesday and Wednesday, said he was never allowed to invoke his rights as a co-manager and block Marimow’s firing. Norcross’s attorneys have argued that Katz’s blocking rights didn’t extend to Marimow, because part of the operating agreement reflects a pledge the new owners took not to interfere in editorial operations. Firing the editor is an editorial decision, they maintain, and as such falls to the publisher Bob Hall.

Today’s hearing was abbreviated, ending proceedings till next Wednesday because of scheduling conflicts. But the testimony was substantive. Katz’s legal team, led by attorney Richard Sprague, mounted a vigorous attack, seeking to pin the firing of Marimow not on Hall but on Katz’s co-owner, Norcross. Much of the testimony centered on a legal opinion Hall said he’d obtained, concluding he had the right to fire Marimow on his own, without approval from Katz, Norcross or any of the owners.

Katz’s lawyers noted that Norcross had the first meeting with the authors of that legal opinion, the law firm Cozen O’Connor. “Mr. Norcross came to me and said what do you think of going with Cozen… and I said fine,” Hall testified.

According to Sprague’s attorneys, Norcross’s insurance firm, Conner, Strong & Buckelew, does business with Cozen O’Connor. Hall professed he could not remember how much the opinion cost.

“Was it more than $10?” he was asked.

Hall maintained he could not recall a figure.

Hall testified that Norcross was not the only owner who supported firing Marimow, recalling a July meeting he had with all owners in attendance but Katz. There, he recounted the reasons he wanted to fire the Inquirer editor. He garnered the support, he testified, of all the owners present but Lenfest, who asked for a meeting with the editor. There, Lenfest told Marimow his “job would be in jeopardy” if he didn’t take action on the items on Hall’s list. Hall felt, at this point, he had Lenfest’s support.

But after October 7th, when Hall fired Marimow, Lenfest signed on to Katz’s lawsuit, saying he didn’t support Marimow’s firing and that Katz had been deprived on his voting or “blocking” rights as co-manager.

Near the end of the day, a smiling Lenfest turned toward a pair of reporters from the Inquirer and Daily News, but his tone was dark, capturing the sense that whatever happens in courtroom 630 will not fully cure what’s happening at the Inquirer and IGM: “We can’t go on this way,” he said, his voice low, “with this relationship between Mr. Norcross and Mr. Katz.”

Next Wednesday, George Norcross is scheduled to take the stand.

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