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Documents show Virginia shooting suspect's turbulent tenure at TV station

NEW YORK — In March 2012, Vester Lee Flanagan achieved what he had been seeking: A return to television news after a long hiatus. But documents filed in a civil court case showed that soon after Flanagan’s arrival at WDBJ, a television station in Roanoke, Virginia, station executives and rank-and-file employees were deeply concerned about his conduct.

Documents show Virginia shooting suspect's turbulent tenure at TV station

Vester Lee Flanagan, who was known on-air as Bryce Williams, is shown in this handout photo from TV station WDBJ7, on Aug 26, 2015. Photo: WDBJ7 via Reuters

NEW YORK — In March 2012, Vester Lee Flanagan achieved what he had been seeking: A return to television news after a long hiatus. But documents filed in a civil court case showed that soon after Flanagan’s arrival at WDBJ, a television station in Roanoke, Virginia, station executives and rank-and-file employees were deeply concerned about his conduct.

The documents were exhibits in a lawsuit Flanagan pursued against WDBJ after he was fired by the station.

There was “a heated confrontation” with another reporter on April 28, 2012. Less than a month later, Flanagan, who used the name Bryce Williams while on the air, clashed with a photographer. And six days after that, there was another dispute between Flanagan and a photographer. The conduct, a station executive told Flanagan in a memorandum, “resulted in one or more of your co-workers feeling threatened or uncomfortable”, the documents showed.

“We want you to work on the tone of your interpersonal relationships and exercise great care in dealing with stressful situations or disagreements and your response to them,” the executive, Dan Dennison, wrote. “You need to always work as a member of a collaborative team and allow your teammates to do their jobs and not assume that you alone are concerned with high quality standards.”

At the time, Mr Dennison, who declined an interview request yesterday (Aug 26), cautioned Flanagan that further trouble could lead to dismissal. But station records showed Flanagan’s tenure became no less turbulent.

About two months after his initial missive to Flanagan, Mr Dennison wrote that Flanagan’s “behaviours continue to cause a great deal of friction” and that the new multimedia journalist’s job was in jeopardy. Mr Dennison ordered Flanagan to contact the company’s employee assistance program.

“We will continue assisting you with your professional growth and development,” Mr Dennison wrote, “but we can no longer afford to have you engage in behaviours that constitute creation of a hostile work environment”.

Flanagan, however, continued to draw criticism. In November 2012, Mr Dennison said Flanagan had breached the company’s journalism standards when he wore a sticker supporting President Barack Obama.

And that December, Mr Dennison wrote a memorandum that detailed what he described as “recent examples of lack of thorough reporting, poor on-air performance or time management issues”.

As the winter wore on, station officials decided to fire Flanagan. When they told him, an internal memorandum recounted, he responded, “You better call police because I’m going to make a big stink. This is not right.”

Station officials chose to contact the police, and officers physically removed Flanagan. In one instance, one document said, Flanagan tossed a baseball cap at one executive. Another memo said Flanagan handed over a wooden cross to an executive, saying, “You’ll need this.”

As Flanagan left, the records showed, he complained to an officer.

“You know what they did?” one memorandum quoted Flanagan as saying, “They had a watermelon back there for a week and basically” used a racial epithet to refer to him.

Adam Ward, a cameraman with WDBJ who was killed yesterday, recorded the dismissal, and records showed that Flanagan briefly turned his attention toward Ward on the day of his firing and told him to “lose your big gut”.

Flanagan later sued the station for, among other complaints, retaliation, wrongful termination and racial discrimination.

In May last year, Flanagan wrote to a judge in Roanoke and said his experiences at the station were “nothing short of vile, disgusting and inexcusable”, and he demanded a jury of African-American women hear a civil lawsuit against the station.

The case was dismissed last year after a judge found the matters had been “fully and completely resolved and compromised”. THE NEW YORK TIMES

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