Three women on the sports staff at USA Today get fired for writing in
dust on a specially commissioned sculpture at Gannett Co.'s expensive
By Kathryn S. Wenner
An apparently lighthearted moment in the hall of power at Gannett Co.'s
fancy new headquarters outside Washington, D.C., goes terribly wrong,
leaving three female sports staffers at USA Today jobless at the start
of the holiday season.
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at
the Washington Post.
The story of Karen Allen, with 25 years at Gannett; Denise Tom, with
26; and Cheryl Phillips, an eight-year employee who was named an
"Enterprise All-Star" last year, saddened and infuriated many in the
journalism community. The outpouring of support included donations to a
legal fund set up by a journalist friend of Tom's.
Here's what happened, according to interviews:
On November 27, Phillips, 39, a database editor; Allen, 48, a
reporter who was preparing to cover her eighth Olympics; and Denise Tom,
49, an assignment editor on the special projects desk, went on a fateful
afternoon expedition. Phillips and Allen, like other employees, had
heard about the "blue ball," a specially commissioned sculpture titled
"Aperture" that had recently been installed outside the 11th-floor
office of Gannett Chairman and CEO Douglas H. McCorkindale. They decided
to take a look, and
Tom, who had already seen it, went along. Gannett
owns USA Today and the paper's offices are in the company's new complex
in McLean, Virginia.
"It's a beautiful piece of art," Allen says, describing the ball as
big, about 5 feet tall, and too wide to get her arms around. "It had
like a dusty sheen on it."
Phillips says they saw fingerprints on the ball. "So we touched it
and noticed that this blue powder came off on our hands," a substance
Allen describes as being the consistency and color of pool cue chalk.
"We were just in a playful kind of foolish mood," Allen says. "We
said, 'This is a beautiful place, but this doesn't look like a newspaper
office.' " It needed something classic like a linotype machine, the
women thought. "So we took our fingers and put 'Kilroy was here' in the
dust, never thinking it wasn't something that wasn't just wiped off at
night," she says.
Tom didn't write anything. "I'm in middle management...so that's what
stopped me.... As soon as they started writing it...I kind of backed
away." Phillips wrote Tom's name on the ball, which Tom tried to wipe
off. Tom says she remembers saying, "Don't touch anything else," as they
Two days later, the three were called to the human resources
department, one by one. Allen, who went first, says she was told their
actions had been recorded by security cameras and was asked: "Are you
aware that you irreparably harmed this piece of art?" Embarrassed and
chagrined, she and Phillips apologized. Tom maintained her innocence.
The three then went to their boss, Sports Managing Editor Monte Lorell.
"We told Monte, 'Gosh, we're sorry. We had no idea,' " Allen says.
"We offered to pay for the damage. Cheryl and I offered to pay Denise's
share since she didn't actually write on the ball."
Phillips, who wrote an apology to USA Today President and Publisher
Tom Curley that evening, says Lorell told them, "Yeah, it was a dumb
thing to do." He said the women might have to pay for the damage,
Phillips says, but that he didn't think it was a "firing offense."
The next day, Friday, when most staffers are off, the women say
Lorell called them at home and told them not to come to work Sunday.
Instead, he told them to report to his office Monday morning.
When they did, Lorell fired them, telling them they'd be paid through
the end of the day. They received no severance, the women say. Even
though Tom hadn't written anything, he told her she was complicit
because she didn't tell anyone about the incident, she says. Allen says
Lorell told her the company had considered and then decided against
filing felony charges.
Lorell declined to answer AJR's questions. A USA Today spokeswoman
said there had been "an act of vandalism involving a piece of artwork at
Gannett headquarters...it was investigated, there were security tapes.
Criminal charges were considered, [but] we're not going to do that." She
said that the three people involved had been terminated but declined to
give further details about the incident. A spokesman said neither
McCorkindale nor Curley would discuss what happened.
After the women were fired, word of the episode spread quickly. The
Washington Post's Lloyd Grove reached the artist who created the blue
ball, Lita Albuquerque. She called the firings " 'a terrible thing,' "
laughed at what Allen and Phillips wrote, and said, " 'it's certainly
reparable for not a lot of money.' " Albuquerque's staff referred AJR's
questions to a USA Today spokesman, who declined to comment.
"None of the people I've talked to think it was a firing offense,"
says NBA reporter Roscoe Nance, who's been at USA Today for 15 years and
worked with Allen on the college sports desk and the NBA desk, where she
was his supervisor. "Were they wrong in what they did? Yes. I just think
that the punishment far outdistanced the crime."
Some staffers suggest that the imminent Gannett board of directors
meeting, which took place the following Tuesday, made executives
The women have hired Washington labor and employment attorney Steven
K. Hoffman, who says he's been inundated with unsolicited communications
from "people who have been at or are at" USA Today and Gannett providing
details about how the company dealt with other instances of misconduct.
"The fact that this discipline is so disproportionate to the
infractions that triggered it opens up a question," Hoffman says. "What
kind of disciplinary system do they have there? Is it meted out with any
consistency from person to person or from group to group?"
He notes news reports about a fistfight between two male employees
who were subsequently charged with disorderly conduct. Charges against
one were dropped; the other must do community service. Neither was
fired. "These three women got the boot," Hoffman says.
Linda Mathews, USA Today's cover story editor, says, "I think what
[the women] did was stupid and thoughtless, but it wasn't malevolent....
They're not troublemakers, and they're very conscientious....
"I would have thought that...everything we knew about their character
would've been taken into account before they were fired."