Monday, October 26, 2009

Reporter Fails to Disclose Involvement in Defamation Suit Filed Against Haap, Heimlich and Baratz

Earlier this month Kevin Osborne over at CityBeat reported on the dissolution of the Save-A-Life Foundation (SALF), an Illinois-based nonprofit organization founded by Carol Spizzirri. Spizzirri and the foundation came under fire in 2006 and 2007 after ABC 7 Chicago aired a multi-part investigative series which raised questions about Spizzirri's credentials as well as the accomplishments that were being achieved by the foundation.

Following the reporting of Chuck Goudie at ABC 7 in Chicago, the Beacon's own Dean of Cincinnati (Jason Haap) began raising similar questions about the Save-A-Life organization as well as questioning the relationship between the organization and local Doctor Henry Heimlich, creator of the "Heimlich Maneuver" and (then) medical adviser to the Save-A-Life Foundation.

After Haap began raising these questions, Save-A-Life Founder Carol Spizzirri and SALF sued the Dean for defamation along with two other critics of the organization: Peter Heimlich, the estranged son of Dr. Henry Heimlich, and Dr. Robert Baratz, President of the National Council Against Health Fraud. SALF claimed that these three had conspired to harm the reputation of the organization by circulating false information to agencies that gave SALF funding. SALF just recently dropped their defamation suit in July of this year and just two short months later on September 17, 2009, the organization filed the appropriate paperwork with the Illinois Secretary of State's Office for voluntary dissolution of the embattled non-profit.

Just prior to CityBeat reporter Kevin Osborne's piece on October 16 about the dissolution of SALF, Chicago-Tribune reporter Lisa Black posted an article entitled "Save-A-Life Foundation in Limbo" on October 11. Here is part of the that article:

Spizzirri, 63, has quietly closed the foundation's headquarters in Schiller Park. The organization, which once had 13 national branches and planned to go international, no longer receives public funding and is "in hibernation" until the economy improves, she said.

The subject of an unflattering television report in 2006, Spizzirri was embroiled for two years in a defamation lawsuit she filed in state court against several critics who alleged she couldn't prove that her organization had trained as many children as she said and that it wasted taxpayers' money. Spizzirri, who eventually dropped her suit, said it took its toll and helped prompt her recent decision to suspend operations.

"I can sleep because I know I did no harm," she said.

Not only is it reported (a month after the dissolution papers were filed) that the completely dissolved SALF is just "in hibernation" and "suspend[ing] operations", but the very title of the piece states that the Foundation is "in limbo".

Black's piece also goes into detail about the story behind Spizzirri's decision to create the organization and quotes Spizzirri multiple times throughout the piece. Here is another clip:

Carol Spizzirri's life changed the instant she learned the horrifying details of her daughter's car wreck. The teenager suffered a severe head injury, and her left arm was nearly severed after her Pontiac Grand Am slid off the road and overturned. Police, who found the 18-year-old lying outside the vehicle, testified they weren't trained in first aid and could offer little but comfort.


As the foundation's president, Spizzirri proved skillful at raising money and pitching her program at the state and federal levels. Until 2008, the Illinois Department of Public Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided the lion's share of the foundation's annual income. The state contributed $600,000 to $700,000 annually most years, beginning in 1999, according to tax records.

The Public Health Department "completed all of the standard grant monitoring required by the grant agreements and found the money was spent appropriately," according to an agency statement.


Today, Spirrizzi is consumed with a new project: helping municipalities fight cyber-crime. She said she is starting a private business with close friend Rita Mullins, 64, former mayor of Palatine.

"I am," Spizzirri said, "a mom who lost a child, and that is all that is important."

It is interesting that Black paints such a simple picture of Spizzirri and SALF considering all of the criticism that has been raised and is on record about this organization and Spizzirri's credibility. While Black does mention that "critics have raised" some concerns about the organization, these points are largely glossed over and Black allows Spizzirri to have the final (and only) word on the controversies that she has been involved in. While Black glosses over the defamation lawsuit that was filed, it is important to note that the defamation case was the eighth most-viewed case on a Harvard University affiliated website that monitors cases involving issues of free speech.

In writing about both an organization, and its founder, that have come under intense fire, one may assume that more time would be spent on some of the claims that have been raised both about the credibility of Spizzirri and the organization itself. We know from Black's piece that Spizzirri dropped her defamation lawsuit, but we never find out why. In fact, the only person who was involved in any of these controversies who gets a voice in Black's piece, is Spizzirri, the woman who has been at the center of said criticisms. I don't see any quotes from Jason Haap, Peter Heimlich, or Dr. Baratz regarding their involvement with the lawsuit or getting their views on SALF and Carol Spizzirri.

One reason that may potentially explain the tone of Lisa Black's piece as well as her reliance on Carol Spizzirri as one of her few sources, is that Black was one of two Chicago Tribune reporters who were named as witnesses on behalf of SALF in the very defamation lawsuit that was filed against Haap, Heimlich, and Baratz. Black fails to disclose this fact in the very piece that not only discusses the lawsuit and relies on Spizzirri for the majority of the quotes, but also paints the status of an organization that is now dissolved as "in limbo".

Here is the list of witnesses. You will see that Black is number 14 and that there are some other interesting names on this list including Chris Finney and David Pepper:

Save-A-Life Foundation (plaintiff) Rule 26(a)(1) disclosures, 4/1/09

It would seem as though full disclosure of this conflict would be appropriate in this situation and the lack of disclosure only raises more questions about the nature of the relationship between the Chicago Tribune, Carol Spizzirri and the now dissolved Save-A-Life Foundation.

This piece is cross posted here.

Photo courtesy of here.

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