A former advertising salesman from KDOC-TV in Anaheim was awarded $256,000 by a jury Monday in his wrongful-termination lawsuit against the station's parent company, two executives and the station's talk show host, Wally George.
Steve Conobre, 66, who was fired three years ago, choked with emotion after hearing the verdict.
"How do you feel, old boy?" his attorney, Eileen C. Moore of Newport Beach, said with a huge smile.
Conobre hugged her and then said: "This is great. . . . It's not the money; it's just knowing (the jurors) thought we were right."
Conobre said he was fired partly because he refused to use phony viewer ratings in his sales pitch. He said the false sales pitch was ordered by then-station manager Michael Volpe, one of the defendants in the lawsuit.
Wally George was included as a defendant because Conobre accused George of trying to get him fired after Conobre complained about George's pursuit of a married female ad executive. George is the right-wing host of the Saturday night show "Hot Seat." He is also host of a radio show in Los Angeles and is a candidate for mayor there.
While George played only a minor role in the lawsuit, he was center stage during his testimony two weeks ago. He flamboyantly asserted that the executive, Linda Ford, had pursued him, not the other way around.
But Conobre's attorney, Moore, produced dozens of letters and cards that Ford said George had sent her in seeking her affections. George finally admitted writing at least some of them.
Ford testified that George was relentless in pursuing her. One of the cards produced in court was signed "President Ronald Reagan," which Ford said was in George's handwriting. It said Ford should marry George in the national interest.
George said Conobre's allegations were a "despicable" bid to ruin his reputation as a moral person.
Jury foreman Gary Johnson of Costa Mesa said after Monday's verdict that George "did not do his side any great favors with his testimony. He was loud and to the point, but he was just being Wally George."
The jury awarded Conobre $181,000 in general damages and ordered the TV station's owners, Golden Orange Broadcasting Co. Inc. to pay him $50,000 in punitive damages. Charles Brack, one of the company directors, and former station manager Michael Volpe were ordered to pay $10,000 each in punitive damages. The jury assessed George $5,000 in punitive damages.
George had been present during the trial but was not in court when the verdict was announced at the end of the day Monday.
Brack was in court and angrily accused Conobre's attorney, Moore, of misleading the jury.
"The whole scenario she painted for the jury was not based on anything that really happened," Brack said. "She characterized people in a way that wasn't true; then the verdict was based on those characterizations."
But Moore had some words of her own for KDOC-TV: "I think this is a message that the community is not going to condone conduct like this from management. You can't bully someone and get away with it anymore."
Moore said she had offered to settle the lawsuit before trial for $150,000, but the station refused.
One juror congratulated Moore afterward and told her, "We thought this was the sort of thing where nothing had to come to court if it had been handled right. It was just bad management."
Conobre joined KDOC-TV--Channel 56--when it first opened as the county's only commercial TV station in 1982.
Conobre said that Volpe, station manager and his superior at the time, ordered him and other ad sales people to tell prospective advertisers that its ratings came from ARB. ARB is commonly understood in broadcasting to refer to Arbitron, one of the two major ratings services. Conobre said that if anyone asked what ARB meant, sales people were told to say it was the Anaheim Research Bureau.
Volpe denied Conobre's allegations. But several other station employees--past and present--testified supporting Conobre's version of events. Ford has her own lawsuit pending against the company over the issue of false ratings.
Jury foreman Johnson said that Volpe's testimony hurt the defense much more than George's.
"Mr. Volpe came across as a relentless, hard-pursuing individual who stepped on some people," Johnson said.
Lawyers for KDOC-TV said they will probably appeal the jury's verdict.
Conobre, who lives in Anaheim with his wife, Gerri, said he is working part time now in video sales.