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Day Three: Aguilar vs. Fox

Rebecca Aguilar will testify Thursday in ongoing trial. Photo: Ed Bark

The star attraction in Rebecca Aguilar's wrongful termination suit made a cameo appearance on the witness stand late Wednesday afternoon after hearing attorneys for her former employer, Fox4, amass a blizzard of performance evaluations and testimony that portrayed her as an increasingly dysfunctional reporter both in the newsroom and on the street.

"It's been a long day," Aguilar said, pretty much stating the obvious after her lead attorney, Bill Trantham, gently asked, "How do you feel up there now?"

Aguilar, whose testimony likely will consume all or most of Thursday's proceedings, briefly outlined her background and zeal for reporting before Judge Jim Jordan called a 5 p.m. recess in a trial that now looks as though it will enter a second week.

"It's a great job. I encourage it for anybody," Aguilar said of reporting.

She started in 1981 -- at a Toledo, Ohio TV station -- and worked almost 14 years at Fox4 before being suspended in October 2007 and dropped for good in March 2008 after the station exercised its option not to renew her latest two-year contract at its midway point. In her almost full day of testimony Wednesday, Fox4 vice president and news director Maria Barrs made it clear that she would have cut Aguilar loose sooner had it been her choice.

"Were you in favor of offering her a new contract (in spring 2007)," Fox lead attorney Michael Shaunessy asked Barrs.

"I was not," she said, adding that her dealings with Aguilar had become "exhausting" and "very frustrating."

"I did not believe anymore that she could change the way she did her job," Barrs said. But Fox4 general manager Kathy Saunders decided that Aguilar merited one more chance, Barrs said. Her much-publicized suspension came on Oct. 16th of 2007, the day after Aguilar's controversial followup story on a then 70-year-old West Dallas salvage business owner who had shot and killed two alleged burglars within three weeks time before she interviewed him in a parking lot after he had just purchased another shotgun.

Barrs and Saunders in earlier testimony repeatedly have described the man, James Walton, as a trembling crime victim who feared for his life and shouldn't have been shown on camera or interviewed after he repeatedly protested. Aguilar "misled" the station into thinking he had eventually fully consented, they testified.

"It was clear to me that she (Aguilar) had lied to me," Barrs said Wednesday.

Raw tape from that day, shown to jurors earlier this week, also shows that Walton seemed to be in no hurry to drive off and was conversational as well as cantankerous. An earlier Fox4 news story already had clearly showed him on camera, but from a greater distance. At one point, Walton held his hand to his face.

In Aguilar's on-air story, she told viewers that "Walton didn't want us to show his face because he's afraid someone will come after him."

But viewers got a fleeting closer look at him anyway as he prepared to enter his car before sitting in the driver's seat and talking at length to Aguilar. Footage from the earlier Fox4 story, in which viewers got their first glimpse of Walton, was edited into Aguilar's Oct. 15th followup story. Besides Aguilar, three off-camera Fox4 newsroom personnel involved in editing and packaging her story were later briefly suspended but are still employed by the station.

Aguilar's $2 million civil suit claims that her suspension was the end result of racial discrimination and retaliation for her repeated lobbying for at least one Hispanic news manager at Fox4 to improve the station's coverage of a viewing area with a substantial and growing Hispanic population.

Barrs, who became Fox4's news director in 1998 after joining the station four years earlier, issued her first written evaluation of Aguilar in 1998. The document, displayed to jurors, gave her a decidedly mixed review. Aguilar had been with the station for four years at that point.

Under the "Strengths" section, Aguilar was praised for being "able to develop rapport with the 'regular' people" while in her street reporter capacity. And "her language skills (Aguilar is bilingual) have brought us stories no one else has."

But under the "Improvements Needed" portion of the evaluation, Barrs wrote that Aguilar "seems to have more than the usual number of unpleasant confrontations with officials and others involved in her stories . . . At times it seems she allows her attitude to come before the story."

In one cited instance, Aguilar "called the public information officer" (of the Dallas Police Department) a 'puppet' in front of his co-workers," Barrs said in the evaluation. Additionally, "Rebecca will sometimes immediately reject a story idea or angle if it is not entirely to her liking, rather than hearing out the suggestion first."

Noting that Aguilar also was "widely perceived to be something of a troublemaker," Barrs recommended postponing discussions of a new contract "for at least three months."

"There were more problems associated with Rebecca and her co-workers than with any other employee," Barrs told attorney Shaunessy in testimony. Still, Aguilar also had a number of strong, exclusive stories during that period and could be a good co-worker when she put her mind to it, Barrs acknowledged.

Aguilar regularly wrote emails distributed to the news room in general, Barrs testified. In a Dec. 15, 2004 example shown to jurors, she encouraged staffers to "think beyond your non-Latino box" after being "very disappointed" by the rejection of her proposed story on Hispanic painters who, in her words, "are being forced to work and being fired when it's payday."

She also said in the email that "some of you have made an effort to look beyond your white and black borders."

A March 2000 written evaluation of Aguilar's work, also authored by Barrs, described Aguilar as a "good reporter" but a bad co-worker.

"Despite numerous discussions about her attitude, Rebecca continues to cause problems and get involved in issues that do not concern her," the evaluation said.

A 2001 evaluation gave Aguilar a comparatively glowing review. In the "Comments and Goals" section, Barrs wrote: "Rebecca continues to improve her attitude after her last performance appraisal. Specifically she has made an honest and consistent effort to stop complaining, stop spreading gossip among her peers, cease being harshly and unfairly critical of her co-workers, and to be more supportive of the goals of the news department. She is a valuable member of the news team."

The evaluation also noted an alleged serious error in a child custody story reported by Aguilar. And in another criticism, Barrs wrote that "Rebecca has a strong sense of ownership of the stories she reports. That can be a good thing, but she needs to remember the needs of the newscast come first."

At that time in her Fox4 career, "I thought Rebecca brought a lot to the table," Barrs testified.

The defense also produced an April 14, 2003 letter of recommendation in which Barrs championed Aguilar for a minority fellowship with the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization.

"I thought she was becoming a member of the team," Barrs told Shaunessy.

But a pair of 2005 written evaluations indicated that Aguilar was backsliding in management's view.

In April of that year, Barrs noted that "Rebecca can become upset when her story ideas are not acted upon or her assessment of a story is questioned." The evaluation also said that Aguilar had made a "serious error in a script - wrongly reporting a man was HIV positive."

In October 2005, under a new 1 to 5 numbers system, Aguilar got an average rating of 3. At this point, Barrs testified, she began feeling that Aguilar was no longer a good fit for the station.

By early 2007 "there were a number of problems," Barrs told Shaunessy. In a Feb. 20, 2007 letter of reprimand -- tied to an allegedly error-filled report on a utility scam -- Barrs wrote, "Rather than expressing any contrition or apology for your errors, you were argumentative, defensive and hostile."

Aguilar then received just a 2 rating -- on the 1 to 5 scale -- in her next evaluation. And at that point, Barrs wanted her gone.

The Walton story -- and the angry reaction to it from a number of Fox4 viewers -- gave both Barrs and Saunders the impetus to suspend Aguilar and eventually part ways with her.

"I felt that we looked like we were beating up on an old guy who had been through a terrible experience," Barrs testified. "I just thought that it reflected very poorly on us (and the media in general) . . . I just think it's an example of why a lot of people don't like us."

On the day of her suspension, a weeping Aguilar was approached by a co-worker outside Fox4's downtown headquarters. In telling her she was suspended, Aguilar violated company policy forbidding employees to talk about internal personnel matters, Barrs wrote in her Nov. 2, 2007 "Last and Final Warning" to Aguilar. She also cited Aguilar for doing a taboo interview with unclebarky.com in which she explained the events leading up to her ill-fated interview with Walton.

In Wednesday's testimony, Barrs emphatically denied that she later approached Aguilar at a July 2009 funeral service for former Fox4 and NBC5 reporter Brett Johnson to apologize for what she had done to her. She did acknowledge reaching out to Aguilar because it seemed like "the appropriate thing to do" in that environment.

Attorney Trantham asked Barrs if she would be surprised if Aguilar's version of what happened at the funeral eventually was corroborated on the witness stand by another person who was in attendance.

"I would be surprised and disappointed that anyone would say that I said that (to Aguilar)," Barrs replied.

Aguilar will get her chance Thursday to both defend herself and rebut the defense's arsenal of written ammunition.