WTVF-Channel 5’s Phil Williamswhose recent reporting on the Metro Police Department has launched investigations, sent a top major packing, and prompted changes in departmental policynow finds himself both the target of a possible libel suit and a messy personal attack.
This summer, Williams aired a series of compelling reports showing how Jimmy Lewis and his two sons, Brad and Bryan, have received preferential treatment from their buddies at the Police Department. In particular, Williams’ dispatches on Brad Lewis wound up being the most explosive. Quoting unnamed officers, Williams reported that Brad Lewis was caught by police with gambling slips, hundreds (maybe thousands) of dollars in cash, and a sawed-off shotgun in his car. He also reported that police were planning to give Lewis a citation and ask him to turn himself in for booking later, but his father-in-law, Police Maj. Carl Dollarhide, intervened and pressured the officer to release him without pressing any criminal charges.
In the wake of Williams’ report, the police launched an investigation of the incident, and Dollarhide soon resigned.
For Williams, it was another top-shelf story in a career full of investigative scoops. But a lawyer for Brad Lewis maintains that while Williams was hell-bent on nailing Dollarhide, he unfairly maligned his client. Bob DeLaney, a local media attorney, sent a letter to Channel 5 officials on Aug. 21 asking that the station retract a good part of its reporting on Brad Lewis. The Scene has not seen the letter and DeLaney declined public comment. However, sources familiar with the case say that the attorney is disputing three parts of Williams’ reporting:
First, while Brad Lewis did have a gun in his possession, it was not a sawed-off shotgun as Williams reported but a legally registered weapon. Second, Lewis did not have betting slips but receipts from a bar he helped run. And finally, Lewis had cash from that bar stored in a First American deposit bag and not haphazardly as Williams suggests.
Ron Harris, an attorney for Channel 5, defends Williams’ reporting. “Channel 5’s position is that they will decline to do the retraction because there was a factual basis for their reporting.” Harris did say, however, that he and “DeLaney are not completely through talking.”
Those talks might be a mere formality. But if there’s one thing shaky about Williams’ story it’s this: Williams never named an officer who saw what was actually in Brad Lewis’ car. In other reports in the series, Williams landed key on-the-record accounts of how various police brass gave both Jimmy and Bryan Lewis favorable treatment. But for his reporting on Brad Lewis, Williams seemed to rely exclusively on allegations from unnamed officers.
Jimmy Lewis, Brad’s father, says that everything that “Williams has said is a blatant lie.” And like any good father, Lewis defends his son, saying that despite what Williams reported, he had nothing illegal in his car at the time he was stopped by police.
“What we need to do is get Phil Williams and the officers who made the accusations and have them take a polygraph test and bring my son forward and give him a polygraph test,” says Jimmy Lewis. “Then we’ll see who’s lying.”
If only it were that simple. Even if Lewis is in the right, Williams did try to call his son, who wouldn’t comment. In fact, Williams claimed on the air (and no one is disputing this) that Brad Lewis threatened to kill him. That kind of response can make it difficult for a reporter to get the full and balanced story.
Still, it’s worth pointing out that Brad Lewis is neither a public figure nor particularly germane to Williams’ overall investigation of police wrongdoing. Indeed, since Williams seemed to be relying on unnamed sources, he might have just reported how Lewis simply had gotten into a scrap with the police rather than report what was allegedly kept in his car. He still could have reported his ultimately damning finding that Dollarhide acted unprofessionally by intervening on his son-in-law’s behalf.
But some familiar with the DeLaney libel letter wonder if Williams had a personal motivation to target Brad Lewis. Earlier this summer, Jimmy Lewis was calling reporters, including this one, with damaging information about Williams’ wife, Peggy Nance Williams, who, at the time, was serving as the executive director of the state Registry of Election Finance. Williams was later relieved of her position after an arrest on public drunkenness.
Having done some digging of his own, Jimmy Lewis was aware of Williams’ troubles well before other papers reported it in the context of her dismissal. In fact, he let Phil Williams know what he was up to.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care what you say about me so long as it’s true, but when you bring my family and friends into it, I’m going to start investigating you,’ ” Lewis says. “I’m going to wear his ass out.”
While one can understood why Jimmy Lewis might be angry if he felt his youngest son was unfairly caught up in reporting about the Police Department, exploiting the troubles of Williams’ wife is unfair.
Jimmy Lewis is now saying Williams responded to the attack by targeting the activities of his son.
Says Williams, “One is business and one is personal and I know the difference between the two.”