After more than 17 years with Southwest Florida station WBBH-TV, anchorman Craig Wolf was fired, and told to leave the building in half an hour. "It came out of nowhere," he said at the time. But Wolf thinks he's solved the mystery. He filed a lawsuit against his former employer, Waterman Broadcasting, claiming that his dismissal was illegal retaliation for a complaint he had made about the office's cleanliness.
In the lawsuit, Wolf describes the carpeting under the anchor desk as "caked with dust, dirt and the residue left by more than 10 years of cosmetics," and the newsroom floor as "greasy, grimy and covered in dust balls and a thick layer of dirt," reports The News-Press, a Southwest Florida newspaper. In 2006, Wolf says he began to "cough uncontrollably" when he entered the news studio, as did dozens of other employees.
Wolf complained on numerous occasions in 2009 and 2010, according to the lawsuit, but nothing was done. Instead, managers installed "cough buttons" that temporarily disabled anchors' microphones for whenever they felt an itch in their throats.
"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."
In October 2010, Wolf filed an anonymous complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In March 2011, Wolf's manager told him that he would not be renewing his contract, which was set to expire at the end of August.
Wolf and his lawyer, Chuck Phoenix, now insist that the dismissal was retaliation, which is illegal under the Florida Whistleblower Act, and that his former employer has blocked Wolf from other anchor jobs in the region, forcing his family to resettle in Nashville, Tenn.
"Obviously, the employer retaliated and fired him, which is quite shocking considering the fact that this company is in the journalism business," Phoenix said.
Steven Pontius, the general manager and executive vice president of Waterman Broadcasting, told The News-Press that he wasn't aware that the lawsuit had been filed, and that Wolf's dismissal was "a performance-related issue."
But others doubt that poor performance could be the cause. "Nothing in this business really surprises me, but this was a surprise," said former anchor Jim McLaughlin, who competed at WINK-TV against Wolf for ratings. "He's been a mainstay for so long. He was a worthy opponent. We battled each other for a long time. He was a great guy, did a great job on the air and I always enjoyed competing against him because he was a class act."
Wolf claims that the dismissal was not only a hit to his finances, but also to his reputation in the industry, and among the public. He is seeking a jury trial and damages in excess of $15,000.
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