Of newspapers, storms and whistleblowers

What a difference a decade makes.

In the summer of 2001, I was the freshly named news editor of The Daily Cougar, the official student newspaper at the University of Houston. I was a nontraditional student, having returned to the university after serving in the U.S. Navy.

In one issue that summer, I wrote a story about a whistleblower lawsuit filed against the university by Stephen Barth, a hospitality industry lawyer and tenured professor in the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. Barth alleged that then-Dean Alan Stutts had retaliated against him for reporting purportedly improper and possibly illegal actions.

I’d written about Barth’s allegations before, in a threepart series that spring, after Barth approached me after I’d written about another lawsuit filed against the university. I followed the series up with another story on UH’s internal investigation of Barth’s allegations.

Like most civil lawsuits, Barth’s case went through quite a ride through the Texas judicial system, with the university appealing to the Texas First Court of Appeals even before the case went to trial. When it finally did more than four years later, I covered the trial, again for the Daily Cougar as a special assignment.

After five days of testimony, a Harris County jury found that UH had indeed retaliated against Barth and awarded him $305,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

Again, the university appealed. I won’t trouble you with all the convoluted legal rigmarole involved, but ultimately the case went to the Texas Suprme Court, which remanded back to the First Court. This week, more than a decade after Barth filed suit, that court ruled in his favor. [The Daily Cougar reports on the appellate decision here.]

That summer of 2001 was an eventful one for me, the Daily Cougar and the University of Houston. Tropical Storm Allison parked itself over the Houston region for days, flooding much of the university and preventing the Cougar from publishing for a couple of weeks while we worked out of a cramped advertising office.

Later that fall, of course, a storm of a different sort struck the United States, and much of our reporting involved the aftermath. But those months at the Cougar were some of the most fun I’ve had as a journalist, and I formed friendships there that continue to this day.

Since then, I’ve been a working newspaper journalist, and it’s been a very interesting period, to say the least. I’ve continued to write about the courts, even as a full-time courts reporter for a Southeast Texas newspaper for a while.

The media landscape has changed tremendously in these past 10 years, and it’s still up in the air where it all will shake out. But when I came across this week’s ruling in the Barth case, it sure took me back to a time when both I and the world seemed much younger.

UPDATE:  The University of Houston has again appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court. In August 2012, Houston Chronicle columnist Patricia Kilday Hart wrote about the ongoing case here, quoting my earlier story on the trial.

SECOND UPDATE:  On June 14, 2013, the Texas Supreme Court overturned a lower appeals court’s upholding of Barth’s win in the lawsuit. In a 12-page decision, the court ruled that the trial court did not have jurisdiction over Barth’s claims, and that Barth failed to show that he made his allegations that Stutts violated the law in “good faith,” given his training and experience as an attorney.

RELATED:  How I remember 9/11

CORRECTION:  This post originally misstated the path the Barth case took through the judicial system before going to trial.

Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and energy and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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2 Comments on “Of newspapers, storms and whistleblowers”

  1. icediva Says:

    I remember these days. Memories. Yes, the world and journalism has changed. How are you?


  2. Ken Fountain Says:

    Hangin’ in there, at least by a thread.


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