Publishers Behaving Badly

Maybe it’s the exhilarating sense of power that comes from having your name on the masthead, maybe it’s the stress, or maybe -- well, probably -- it’s just a coincidence, but publishers are getting into all kinds of trouble lately. Let’s hope this isn’t a trend (although honestly, as a blogger, I find it kind of great, since it gives me so much material to riff off).

This week Selim “Sam” Zherka, owner of the Westchester Guardian, was sentenced to three years in prison after accepting a plea deal on fraud charges -- averting a sentence of up to 300 years. Zherka, colorfully described in one report as a “publisher, strip club owner and political operative,” will also pay a $1.5 million fine, $1.2 million in taxes, interest and penalties in a number of states as well as to the federal government, as well as serving another three years of “supervised release” after his prison term.

Zherka had admitted to conspiring to make false statements to a bank and filing false tax returns with the IRS, as part of a scheme to fraudulently acquire apartment complexes in Tennessee. The conspirators were planning to lie about the purchase price and down payment in order to secure a loan, then overstate depreciation expenses and understate capital gains. Zherka also later admitted to tampering with witnesses.

However, in their legal arguments Zherka’s lawyers had attempted to cast doubt on the prosecutors’ motivations in bringing the charges, claiming that Zherka was targeted because of his political activity, including support for the Tea Party. Zherka also enjoyed the spotlight during a high-profile feud with former Yonkers mayor Phil Amicone, who called Zherka an “Albanian mobster” and “thug” at a campaign rally in 2007.

From fraud we move on to indecent exposure. Earlier this month Crain’s Cleveland Business publisher John Campanelli was placed on indefinite administrative leave after being charged with two counts of public indecency in November.  In the first incident, on Nov. 16, Campanelli allegedly exposed himself to a female employee at a hotel in Aurora, Ohio. The second incident took place in Hudson, in front of his home. Separate pre-trial hearings for the two charges are scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 30, and Jan. 5.

Last and perhaps least, over the weekend the incoming publisher of one of Vermont’s biggest newspaper companies (Vermont Community Media — owner of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus) was charged with driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident. On the evening of Dec. 26, Catherine Nelson, age 64, allegedly crashed into the porch and guardrail outside a local business center -- then continued driving and crashed into the Westminster Cracker Company, a local business, where she was arrested. Police said her blood alcohol level was over twice the legal limit.

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