City Desk

Lawsuit Alleges Washington Times Power Struggle

washingtontimes

Victims of the recent purge at the Washington Times have walked away with a shell-shocked sensation. As in, What the hell just happened here?

Consider: After riding out some really bad times, the paper all of a sudden ousts its visionary top management and then announces layoffs as deep as 40 percent. And when it comes time to hand out the pink slips, the cuts end up slashing the newsroom more deeply, by about 60 percent.

Thanks to the tremendous reporting of TPM LiveWire, we know that the cuts at the Washington Times followed a fascinating struggle within the reigning family of the Unification Church. According to TPM, Hyun-jin Moon—aka Preston Moon, the polished, MBA-holding son of church leader the Rev. Sun Myung Moon—"acted without his father's blessing" in gutting the newspaper. Preston Moon had reportedly lost out to his brother, the similarly named Hyung-jin Moon, in the quest to succeed Sun Myung Moon as the church's top leader; he took "unilateral action" with regard to the Washington Times, reports TPM.

Richard A. Steinbronn is adding a bit more detail to that narrative. A lawyer who resides in Herndon, Steinbronn would appear an unlikely route to enlightenment on the inner workings of the Unification Church and its business holdings. Yet he served as secretary and in-house legal counsel for Unification Church International (UCI) from the mid-1990s until September 2008.

At which point, he claims, he was wrongfully terminated. That's according to a suit he filed last month in D.C. Superior Court—a nearly 50-page complaint that spans 343 enumerated paragraphs and features more specifics on the activities of Moon family-related entities than you could ever want, let alone understand.

It's long been known that the Washington Times has lived off of subsidies provided by various business entities connected to the Unification Church. Several years back, media accounts placed the amount of the subsidy at $1 billion; recently, the estimates have risen as high as $2 billion.

Whatever the amounts, we've always known the core reality of Washington Times budgeting: As soon as someone decided to turn off the spigot, the paper would wither.

As Steinbronn's filing outlines, the Washington Times' evisceration essentially began in the summer of 2009. That's when, in the words of the complaint, "UCI's founder suggested that two more directors be considered for positions on the UCI board." And when "UCI's founder" offered such "suggestions," the document notes, they were viewed as "having paramount significance." In other words, no one messes with Sun Myung Moon.

The complaint continues: Two UCI directors, Douglas Joo and Peter H. Kim, then called for a special meeting on July 12, 2009, to elect the directors suggested by the founder. Joo and Kim got their meeting all right, but they were the only ones there. Preston Moon and two others didn't show, and the session adjourned for a lack of a quorum.

Weeks later, on Aug. 2, the board held a meeting and ousted Joo and Kim. Straight from the filing: "On August 3, 2009, the day after Mr. Joo and Mr. Kim were removed from the UCI board, News World Communications LLC notified its subsidiary, The Washington Times LLC (TWT), of new restrictions on TWT's ability to seek financing and funding, and new restrictions prohibiting TWT from engaging legal counsel without prior written OK from NWC LLC's legal counsel....In the following weeks, various other actions were taken at TWT, including amending TWT's operating agreement in ways that increased the control NWC LLC had over day to day operations at TWT."

More stuff on the Washington Times, as alleged by Steinbronn:

  • In mid-August 2009, Washington Times Publisher Thomas McDevitt, the guy who had ushered in an era of optimism at the paper coinciding with the hiring of editor John Solomon, was removed from the paper's board.
  • Sometime in the fall of 2009, Jonathan Slevin, the current publisher of the Washington Times, became the "sole director" of News World Communications.
  • The changes at Washington Times came at the direction of Preston Moon and others.

And, finally, Steinbronn's takeaway: "On information and belief, these actions taken at TWT at the direction of Mr. Slevin and UCI management are damaging the business reputation and value of TWT as a historic, strategic asset of the UCI group."

Now there's a matter for moot court. Given the (unchallenged) estimates about how much cash the paper has gobbled up in its nearly 30-year history, calling it an "asset" of any sort is a stretch. And calling it a "historic" asset presupposes that the good old days of Wes Pruden's Washington Times, the days when the choice of news stories screamed of ideological bias, the days of scare quotes around "gay marriage," and the days of a petulant refusal to print the word "gay" in constant favor of "homosexual"—carried social and financial value.

Steinbronn can be excused for overvaluing a property for which he worked more than a decade. As to whether the pro se plaintiff, a Unification Church member, has accurately described the internal moves that led up to the debasement of the Washington Times, well, that's a tricky question.

Steinbronn did not respond to two calls for comment on his complaint. A lawyer for one of the defendants did not immediately return a call for comment.

Regardless of whether the Unification Church establishment refutes Steinbronn's narrative, it sure does appear concerned that his allegations will leak into the public realm. In a Dec. 22 filing, two weeks after Steinbronn's complaint, defendant Times Aerospace USA LLC (TA USA), one of the church-related entities housed in the Washington Times building on New York Avenue NE, appealed to the court to seal Steinbronn's complaint. The motion reads, "Plaintiff's Complaint contains numerous allegations derived in whole or part from his having acted as the in-house counsel for TA USA and UCI and reveals the confidences and secrets of his former clients." Steinbronn, according to the motion, has raised no objection to sealing his complaint.

Hell, the Unification people even detailed the parts of the Steinbronn complaint that they are most worried about becoming public. Just so the public can have a reasonable discussion of whether the court should seal these portions, let's provide a capsule summary of them:

  • "Secrets and confidences related to defendant Huyn Jin Moon's election as UCI Director and President."

OK, in this part of the complaint that so scares the church, Steinbronn alleges that in April 2006, Preston Moon was elected as UCI chairman, president, and CEO. It also says that he was the first UCI president to receive a salary "as UCI president." The complaint later notes that a section of the District's nonprofit law "prohibits the payment of dividends and distributions of income to directors and officers."

  • "Secrets and confidences related to changes of the UCI board in 2009."

OK, in this part of the complaint that so scares the church, Steinbronn runs through the narrative that precedes the dismantling of the Washington Times, as abridged above.

  • "Secrets and confidences related to business strategy of UCI subsidiaries."

OK, in this part of the complaint that so scares the church, Steinbronn discusses personnel changes at the Washington Times board and at that of its parent company, News World Communications, not to mention key happenings at an entity called Times Aerospace International LLC, not to be confused with Times Aerospace USA LLC (note the absence of "International" in that one!), or with Washington Times Aviation LLC, or with Washington Times Aviation USA LLC, or with Times Aviation USA LLC. Not that anyone ever would!

  • "Secrets and confidences related to UCI board governance and sales of UCI assets."

OK, in this part of the complaint that so scares the church, Steinbronn talks about a whole bunch of UCI biz, including the possibility that UCI upper management "may be planning to sell certain rural property held by New Hope Farm in West Virginia and Virginia, and other properties held in the UCI group." Wouldn't want the public to know about the possible sale of cow pastures!

Through all of his exacting allegations about Unificationia, Steinbronn sounds pissed. The complaint alleges that on Aug. 18, 2009, he was called to a meeting in New York state. He went. When he got back, he found that the locks of his Falls Church office had been changed. A struggle for files—both personal and professional—ensued.

The suit asks for all kinds of damages, monetary and otherwise, including "an accounting of UCI and all subsidiaries, to determine the extent of any improper use or expenditure of funds or property."

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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