During last summer’s trial of former HealthSouth Corp. chief executive officer Richard Scrushy, he received considerable support from many Alabamans, as well as in The Birmingham Times.
Now it appears that Scrushy, who was acquitted for his role in HealthSouth’s $2.7 billion accounting scandal, may have paid for that support.
Audry Lewis, who wrote articles favorable to Scrushy for the Times, says Scrushy secretly paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before they were published, according to the Associated Press.
Citing documents it obtained, the AP reported that public relations firm The Lewis Group wrote a $5,000 check to Audry Lewis on April 29, 2005, the day Scrushy hired the company (The namesake of the PR firm is not related to the journalist, noted the AP.) Another $5,000 check was written to the Rev. Herman Henderson, who employs Lewis at his Believers Temple Church — and who was one of a number of black preachers who supported Scrushy and regularly attended the trial, the wire service added.
After Scrushy hired the PR firm, reported the AP, Lewis’s stories moved to the front page. One such story, published the day jurors got the case, stated that “pastors and community leaders have rallied around Scrushy showing him the support of the Christian and African American community.”
Lewis and Henderson now reportedly allege that Scrushy owes them $150,000 for newspaper articles and other public relations work, such as persuading other black pastors to attend the trial, in hopes of influencing the mostly black jury.
In an e-mail response to questions from the AP, Scrushy denied authorizing payments to Henderson or Lewis for any work on his behalf. As for the government viewpoint, U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, who prosecuted Scrushy, told the AP that “if you want to pay someone to write favorable stories and can get a paper to print them, I don’t know of any law it violates.”
The payments do, however, raise questions about journalistic integrity, let alone the supposed grassroots support that Scrushy enjoyed during his trial.
Lewis told the AP she initially wrote the articles for free because she believed Scrushy was innocent, but that the former HealthSouth CEO began paying her for the articles during the trial. “He didn’t think he was getting a fair shake in the media, which is why he hired me,” she told the AP in an interview.
The wire service also reported that Lewis sent Scrushy unedited copies of her stories; Scrushy, for his part, stated that he looked at some of her stories before publication “to make sure the facts from the trial were correct.”
You may also remember that for a time, after his indictment but before his trial, Scrushy was the host of a local morning television show in Birmingham. Using a folksy manner and repeated biblical references, Reuters reported, Scrushy compared the media to “old Satan sneaking in the back door” and said he hoped to use the medium to deliver what he called truth “without negative media spin.”
This morning show was really more of an infomercial, noted Reuters, since Scrushy bought a daily half-hour slot for 12 months.