The Missoulian’s parent company is suing the newspaper’s former publisher and four former advertising department employees for allegedly stealing confidential, proprietary information about clients from company computers and using it to form their own marketing agency to compete with the newspaper.
In a civil lawsuit filed Tuesday in Missoula County District Court, Lee Enterprises Inc. seeks a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against Jim McGowan, Tia Metzger, Brooke Redpath, Tara Halls and Megan Richter.
Their conduct is allegedly “continuing to cause immediate and irreparable injury to Lee Enterprises," the lawsuit contends. It also accuses the former employees of deliberate and malicious conduct and of violating several Montana laws, including the Trade Secret Act.
Lee Enterprises seeks damages to be specified at a jury trial, along with punitive damages, exemplary damages, attorney fees, an accounting of the defendants’ revenues and profits that have been wrongfully derived through their alleged misappropriation of proprietary property and trade secrets via unfair competition, as well as a return of all pertinent proprietary digital and physical property.
Calls and emails to the defendants' new businesses seeking comment for this story were not returned to the Missoulian on Wednesday. Emails and texts to McGowan, Halls, Redpath, Metzger and Richter went unanswered as well.
The defendants' attorney, Bob Terrazas, did not return phone messages and an email from the Missoulian, seeking comment.
McGowan was publisher of the Missoulian from 2011 until Sept. 18, 2014, when he was replaced by publisher Mark Heintzelman. However, he was offered a job as sales director and chose to stay on with the company.
In that capacity, McGowan led the Missoulian’s advertising department and the paper’s in-house marketing service, Montana Marketing Group. Redpath, Halls and Metzger all reported to him. Richter reported to Metzger.
McGowan resigned from the Missoulian on March 2, to work with two marketing companies, Windfall Inc. and Mettle LLC, also named as defendants in the lawsuit. Around the time McGowan left, Redpath, Halls, Metzger and Richter all resigned from the Missoulian, and all now work at McGowan’s companies.
The lawsuit alleges that the five employees jointly planned their departure from the company after McGowan was demoted, using company time to create a strategy to develop Windfall and Mettle as full-service marketing and advertising agencies that would directly compete with MMG and the Missoulian.
In the course of their work at the Missoulian, all five defendants had access to proprietary information, including detailed accounts of customer budgets and purchase histories, digital marketing and advertising records, market research reports and analyses, and detailed information related to upcoming bids for customers' services.
The lawsuit also alleges that McGowan advised employees of the Missoulian to copy their marketing and advertising information from company-owned computer hardware to digital storage devices to facilitate transferring business outside of the Missoulian and MMG.
A forensic computer analysis showed that McGowan began copying this proprietary information as early as the day he was demoted from publisher.
Katie Guenzler, now the managing director of MMG, stated in an affidavit that shortly after he was demoted, McGowan told her, Richter and Metzger that they should all bring in external hard drives to copy the hard drives of their work computers.
Guenzler stated that she understood that McGowan's instruction to take this information was so they could use it to either join or create an agency that would compete with MMG.
Guenzler said McGowan told her he wanted to leave the Missoulian.
The lawsuit alleges that while the defendants were still on the Missoulian’s payroll, they began competing with the Missoulian and MMG by copying and deleting company files and contacting customers of the Missoulian using Missoulian email accounts to schedule meetings for the purpose of promoting Windfall and/or Mettle.
They also allegedly directed customers of the Missoulian who were seeking business services to their personal email accounts rather than to Missoulian representatives for the purpose of promoting the interests of Windfall and Mettle.
Lee Enterprises contends that it has incurred losses and damages due to the dissemination of the sensitive and proprietary business information that the defendants have misappropriated, which has directly led to the loss of historical customers who conducted business with the defendants.
Lee Enterprises and the Missoulian are represented by attorney Jeffrey Roth of Garlington, Lohn and Robinson.