4/3/98 -- 12:42 AM

Reporters claim firings part of coverup
By WALT BELCHER of The Tampa Tribune

Two former investigative reporters accused WTVT, Channel 13, in a civil lawsuit filed Thursday of firing them in an attempt to cover up a story about a controversial growth hormone given to Florida dairy cattle.

In the lawsuit, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, Steve Wilson and his wife, Jane Akre, allege that Fox 13 management was scared off the story by chemical giant Monsanto, which manufactures the hormone.

Wilson and Akre are seeking damages exceeding $15,000 for ``wrongful termination'' and for violating the Florida Whistleblower's Act.

The lawsuit alleges that when Akre and Wilson refused - after 10 months and 73 rewrites - to give a favorable slant to the story, they were fired in December and the story was quashed.

Fox officials denied the allegations, saying that Wilson and Akre failed to substantiate claims in their story that the hormone is linked to cancer.

A Monsanto spokesman, who called the lawsuit ``incredulous,'' said the company has nothing to hide. Gary Barton, of Monsanto's St. Louis Agricultural Division, said the hormone has been thoroughly tested and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and there's no evidence linking it to cancer.

Wilson, a former reporter for ``Inside Edition'' known for sensational exposes, held news conferences Thursday in Tallahassee and Tampa to call attention to his lawsuit. ``I'm not doing this to get a lot of money,'' Wilson said. ``And this is not about a couple of disgruntled former reporters whining over a story that was killed. ... This is strictly a matter of conscience. Fox 13 didn't just want to kill the story. ... Instead we were ordered to broadcast demonstrably inaccurate and dishonest versions of the story.''

In a prepared statement, WTVT General Manager David Boylan said, ``The station categorically denies that it ever asked Wilson or Akre to include false information in the piece. ... In the view of the station management, the reporters were not willing to be objective in the story nor accept editorial oversight and news counsel.''

Wilson and Akre said their multipart story was to have aired in February 1997 but was pulled after the station received a letter from a lawyer representing Monsanto questioning the accuracy of the report.

During the next 10 months, according to the lawsuit, the reporters made numerous rewrites, all of which were rejected by Fox lawyers.

Wilson alleges that Boylan threatened to fire him and Akre and replace them with a reporter who would give the story a favorable slant. Wilson says he told Boylan if that happened he would file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

Wilson and Akre were later fired, and the lawsuit alleges the firing violates the Florida Whistleblower's Act protecting employees from retaliation.

Wilson said that at one point Fox offered him and Akre $200,000 to walk away and keep quiet about the story, but they refused. WTVT says it offered Wilson and Akre an opportunity to continue their employment contracts as consultants. The Fox 13 statement added: ``The reporters did not accept this proposal which can in no way be characterized as `hush' money.''

Wilson says he and Akre are not employed, have sold their home and are living on unemployment compensation.

``I am risking my career by doing this, and I will probably never work in television again,'' Wilson said. ``But we wanted to get this story out.''

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