LOS ANGELES In what was the most grammatically contested day in the Doug Dowie-John Stodder trial so far, former Fleishman-Hillard SVP Public Affairs Fred Muir returned to the stand Wednesday to comment on alleged write-ups, "value billing," and ambiguous word usage.
"I think you've got a triple negative in that," Muir informed Dowie attorney Nick Hanna at one point in the proceedings. "'Did I not never deny'? Could you rephrase that, please?"
Appearing to bristle when the words "write up" were used to describe legitimate billing-worksheet entries, Muir again told the court of invoices altered to meet Fleishman's monthly financial projections.
Carefully following the single-spaced worksheets with both index fingers, the tall, salt-and-pepper-haired Muir leaned over papers, in a monotone voice acknowledging that "at the direction of [group head] John Stodder, there were occasions where I believe I may have written up," bills on accounts including the Frank Gehry architectural firm and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
During his cross-examination, Stodder attorney Jan Handzlik strayed from his usual "these could be legitimately worked hours, couldn't they?" approach, noting that Muir failed to document all but one Gehry-related meeting with Stodder from March through September 2003. Commenting that he made "a regular practice" of not billing meetings, Handzlik suggested that Muir intentionally under-charged the client, perhaps in an effort to persuade Gehry to ditch Fleishman and join Muir's own soon-to-launch agency.
No, Muir responded, that wasn't the case. Although colleagues--including Stodder and Dowie--may well have developed alternate billing practices, Muir said he based his billing on quality of discussion as well as length of time; he preferred to charge clients only for "meetings of substance, or a really serious 15 minutes" rather than "quickies."
Muir also delved into the intricacies of PR-driven story placement--in particular, an October 2003 BusinessWeek article, which, he said, Stodder felt was worth far more to the client than hourly billings represented.
"In fact, you spent only 15 minutes on a phone call, didn't you, Sir?" asked Handzlik, acrimoniously pushing Muir to explain how long he worked to land the Frank Gehry-focused piece.
"That's absolutely preposterous," Muir replied, visibly aggravated. "It clearly shows somebody didn't know what they were talking about." Explaining that he had a long relationship with the journalist, Muir said he courted him for several months before securing the six-page feature--"a pretty big hit," in terms of achievement. "To get a story in BusinessWeek, Sir, does not happen with a 15- minute phone call."
Earlier in the morning, Muir acknowledged that although he was hired by Dowie, over time, he came to professionally dislike the man. In recounting his resignation from Fleishman, Muir painted an almost Cosa Nostra picture of his interaction with the former GM, recalling how they traded threats and he feared a possible "physical exchange."
Muir also told the court of a previous "Godfather"-like incident, when he took his wife--a Fleishman client--to lunch, purportedly to discuss the possibility of increasing her firm's retainer fee. Dowie, he said, not only rejected the meal expense, but insisted that Muir write him a personal letter of apology for seeking an improper reimbursement.
"No, no, I wasn't happy," Muir said.
The highlight of Muir's testimony was his impromptu analyses of both defense attorneys' grammar: He is, after all, an award-winning journalist. Throughout his time on the stand, Muir insisted upon differentiations between the words "inflated" and "fraudulent," demanded the definition of "uncaptured," and hesitated before agreeing that "disloyalty" to one's employers is "wrong."
"Your language isn't precise, which is the problem here," he told Handzlik, in no uncertain terms.
Barring a surprise recess for remedial English lessons, proceedings will continue Thursday morning.