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November 15, 2010 6:14 PM

NPR Hires Weil to Investigate Juan Williams Firing

Posted by Brian Baxter

National Public Radio has retained Weil, Gotshal & Manges for an internal investigation into the firing of Juan Williams on October 20 after the former news analyst made controversial on-air remarks about his feelings toward Muslims to Fox News's Bill O'Reilly.

After being fired by NPR, where Williams worked as a journalist for more than a decade, Fox stepped in and inked the political commentator to a three-year contract worth nearly $2 million. Williams seems to have landed on his feet, but his former employer continues to consider the circumstances that led to his dismissal.

In a public session of an NPR board of directors meeting last week, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit media organization announced that it had hired Weil Gotshal. Partner Yvette Ostolaza, cohead of Weil's complex commercial litigation practice, will handle the broadcaster's internal probe. Ostolaza, who is based in Dallas, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on her new assignment.

The firm has previously represented NPR in its fight against the "record industry rate increases for streaming music on the Web," according to a press release. NPR board chairman Dave Edwards said that Weil was hired on the Williams matter because of its "considerable expertise in governance issues." The firm, which has not been given a deadline for its work, will have access to NPR employees involved in the firing and internal documents in preparing a final report for the board.

Joyce Slocum, NPR's general counsel, didn't immediately respond to a phone call requesting comment placed to her office late Monday. Slocum, who joined NPR in July 2008, also serves as the organization's chief ethics officer and secretary to its board.

Some of Weil's work will undoubtedly focus on NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller, who before firing Williams told a press gathering in Atlanta that Williams should have directed his comments to his "psychiatrist or his publicist--take your pick." That led the National Alliance on Mental Illness to call Schiller's comments "outrageous." (NAMI sent a letter to Schiller and Slocum castigating Schiller for her callous comments prior to Williams's termination.)

Schiller later apologized for her "thoughtless remark" and has promised to spearhead changes at NPR.

"The merits of the decision to terminate Juan Williams's contract notwithstanding--and I do believe we were right to part ways--the matter was handled badly," Schiller said at a board meeting last week. "It also came at a hard time for stations who were fund-raising. Our staff and stations were unprepared for the questions that came up...We are conducting a review of our process for handling the Juan Williams's matter, and, as you just said Mr. Chairman, we are also undertaking a review of our ethics guidelines to ensure they are clear, consistent, and understood by all."

Williams, who appeared at a law event in Baltimore after being fired last month, could not immediately be reached for comment.

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NPR can not find someone less pricey than Weil? Bad move for a not for profit.

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