For nearly a year now, Southwest Florida television viewers have wondered about the reasons behind the firing of WBBH-TV main anchor Craig Wolf. He was escorted from the building last March after more than 17 years with the station.
This weekend, details came to light after Wolf filed a whistle-blower lawsuit Friday in Lee Circuit Court against his former employer, Waterman Broadcasting. Waterman owns WBBH-TV, NBC2 and also operates WZVN-TV, ABC7.
In the lawsuit, Wolf alleges he was fired because he filed a federal complaint about unsanitary conditions at the station’s studios and other parts of the building.
The seven-page document reads in part:
“From the time Wolf began working for Waterman, he noticed the news studio and newsroom were extremely unclean and the office furnishings were in disrepair. Specifically, the carpeting on the riser upon which the anchor desk sat was caked with dust, dirt and the residue left by more than 10 years of cosmetics. Additionally, the floors in and around the cubicles and printers in the newsroom were greasy, grimy and covered in dust balls and a thick layer of dirt.”
It continues: “In 2006, Wolf began to experience a physical reaction to these conditions when he would enter the news studio. Specifically, Wolf began to cough uncontrollably, which affected his ability to present the news broadcast.”
“There were dozens of people that were suffering the same symptoms I was in that building,” Wolf said Saturday. “Some of them were on-air people, some of them were production people. The people, including myself, that were coughing and wheezing spent most of their time in the NBC2 studio and the newsroom. It didn’t take much more than a few steps in the newsroom to see how filthy it was.”
Wolf claims he voiced his concerns about cleanliness and his coughing on several occasions in 2009 and 2010, but was ignored. In October 2010, the suit says, Wolf filed an anonymous complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The lawsuit alleges Waterman violated the Florida Whistleblower Act, which is meant to protect employees from retaliation for reporting companies that break laws or regulations.
Steve Pontius, general manager and executive vice president of Waterman Broadcasting, said he has not seen a copy of the lawsuit and was not aware it had been filed. “I’ve not been served anything. I’ve not seen anything. I have nothing to say,” Pontius said.
As for the reason behind Wolf’s firing, Pontius said every aspect of Wolf’s contract was honored, but the contract was not renewed. “It was a performance-related issue,” he said.
Wolf and his lawyer, Chuck Phoenix of Phoenix, File & Pagidipati, are convinced the complaints and the OSHA filing led to Wolf’s firing.
“There were a number of things that Mr. Wolf did to bring a workplace condition to (his managers’) attention. He filed the complaint with OSHA,” Phoenix said. “Obviously, the employer retaliated and fired him, which is quite shocking considering the fact that this company is in the journalism business.”
At one point after Wolf had begun making his complaints, NBC2 managers installed “cough buttons” for the anchors, which allowed them to hide their coughing from television viewers, the lawsuit alleges.
“Instead of addressing the underlying cause of why people were sick, they decided to mute the symptoms by installing a cough button that shut off our microphones whenever we would get the urge to cough, which was every few minutes,” Wolf said. “That really bothered me.”
Wolf and his family relocated to the Nashville, Tenn., area in January. He says this move was in part due to the fact NBC2 continues to contractually block him from seeking other anchor positions in Southwest Florida.
In the lawsuit, Wolf says he has suffered financial and other damages and asks for a jury trial. The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $15,000.
Wolf’s lawyer said it could take years to get the case to trial, but he says he and his client will do whatever it takes.
“The primary issue is his decreased standing in the industry,” Phoenix said. “In broadcast journalism, being terminated could be viewed very negatively by the public and by other employers. Here you have a journalist bring an issue to his employer, that any good employer should address. Instead of addressing it, he was terminated. It harms his standing in the community and the journalistic community.”