Appeals court to hear city official’s lawsuit alleging newspaper ran him out of town

The Iowa Judicial Branch Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

The Iowa Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments this week in an unusual case involving a former city administrator who argues that an eastern Iowa newspaper successfully campaigned to “run him out of town” through unfavorable news articles and editorials.

Craig Malin, who served as Davenport’s city administrator from August 2001 until June 2015, is suing the Quad-City Times and two of its employees, reporters Barb Ickes and Brian Wellner.

Malin is not suing for libel but for intentional interference with a contract, claiming the newspaper’s hostility toward him is what caused city aldermen to force him out. Initially, Malin also sued the Times for defamation, but the newspaper won summary judgment on that count, which meant that when the case went to trial in 2019, the jury considered only Malin’s claim of intentional interference.

In his opening and closing arguments, Malin’s attorneys told jurors the Times’ articles and editorials were intended not just to inform the public, “but, more importantly, to sway the city council … The Quad-City Times is saying, ‘If you guys don’t get rid of Craig Malin, we are going to help put you out of office.’”

A jury decided in favor of the newspaper, which led to the appeal now before the Iowa Supreme Court.

In briefs filed with the court, Malin’s attorneys now argue that after Malin set up Davenport Today, a city-run, online “news” outlet, the Times set out to “run him out of town.” They say the Times saw Davenport Today as a competing “business,” and soon after Malin launched the site, the newspaper published a series of articles and columns that “were almost uniformly critical” of him. The paper, he says, also “hammered” him in an editorial that mentioned him 17 times, and referred to him as a “news executive.”

Many of the articles and editorials cited by Malin were tied to a controversial decision by the city to pay for millions in road-related expenses associated with a casino development in Davenport. In his lawsuit, Malin objected to the Times reporting he had made claims about certain aspects of the decision rather than reporting on documents that supported those claims.

Malin took issue with the Times writing that he had claimed the city attorney “signed off” on the deal when the paper had records proving the attorney had, in fact, “signed off” on it. Along those same lines, Malin claimed the paper “falsely” stated that he “insisted” he never agreed to a controversial element of the deal, arguing that he did not “merely” insist it, he also provided the newspaper with records that, in his view, proved that.

Malin cited a newspaper editorial that warned city aldermen they might face the wrath of voters due to Malin’s actions. That editorial, Malin says in court filings, was “intended to threaten the Davenport City Council into releasing” him from his contract with the city.

Until city officials signaled a desire to part ways with him, Malin argues, they had never “uttered a word of concern” about his job performance. It was only as a result of the Times’ “cascade of actual malice,” Malin now argues to the Iowa Supreme Court, that he had to restart his career in Seaside, California, and rebuild his professional reputation.

In response, the newspaper argues that for all the objections Malin raises about the Times’ reporting, “not once did he identify any instance in which he was misquoted, and he acknowledged the aldermen criticized him in quotations to the paper. At the crux of the publication is the undisputed fact that the city council members felt misled by Malin’s actions and statements.”

Complicating matters is Malin’s assertion that some of the Times’ opinion pieces weren’t adequately labeled as such online, appearing on the web page labeled as local news.

The Times argues that while Malin’s expert witness stated there could be confusion as to what is opinion and what is news — particularly among readers who saw only a headline — Malin presented no evidence of actual reader confusion on that point, let alone that city aldermen were confused on that point.

In fact, the newspaper points out, the only city alderman called to testify in the trial said the Times’ coverage of Malin did not influence his judgment.

The newspaper also notes that the jury sided with the Times and found that its writings were protected by the First Amendment only after concluding the newspaper believed its writings were true, that it had not acted with reckless disregard for the truth, and that the subject matter of the articles and editorials was of public concern.

“If the jury believed Malin’s continued assertions that the publications at issue were ‘blatantly false’ or ‘purposefully misleading,’” it would not have rendered a verdict in favor of the Quad-City Times,” the newspaper’s lawyers argue.

The Iowa Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case on Thursday.

Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman and editor Kathie Obradovich worked for the Quad-City Times in the 1980s and 1990s.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.