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Inquirer chair says co-owner in control

| Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, 8:24 p.m.
Attorneys William Tambussito, left, and Michael Chertoff, right, accompany New Jersey businessman and co-owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, George Norcross, center, as they Judge Patricia McInerney's courtroom, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, at City Hall in Philadelphia. McInerney is hearing arguments over who should control The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Co-owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer H.F. 'Gerry' Lenfest, left, walks to Judge Patricia McInerney's courtroom, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013, at City Hall in Philadelphia. McInerney is scheduled to hear arguments over who should control The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA — As feuding owners fight for control of Philadelphia's two largest newspapers, the board chairman testified that politically powerful co-owner George Norcross runs the show.

Norcross is an insurance executive and Democratic powerbroker in New Jersey. He and five other business leaders pooled $55 million to buy The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News last year.

However, philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the board chairman, said that 18 months later, “everything is really done (at) the direction of Norcross.”

The declaration was made as a judge weighs a lawsuit seeking to undo last month's firing of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow and oust the publisher who fired him.

Fellow investor Lewis Katz, the former New Jersey Nets owner, testified that he and Norcross bought equal shares of the company for $16 million apiece so that they would both have to agree on major decisions. They had never worked together previously.

Yet Katz said Marimow was fired last month without his consent. He and Lenfest have sued their partners over the firing.

Common Pleas Judge Patricia McInerney must decide whether to return Marimow to the newsroom and oust Publisher Bob Hall, who fired him. The Norcross faction argues such a move would cause yet more turmoil in the troubled newsroom.

The hearing will continue on Thursday, when Katz's testimony resumes. Norcross may also take the stand. His roster of lawyers in the City Hall courtroom includes Michael Chertoff, a former U.S. appeals court judge and Transportation Security Administration secretary.

Katz, in his testimony, said the owners signed noninterference pledges to assuage concerns that they would meddle in editorial decisions. But it's unclear whether the pledge was meant to include hiring or firing the editor.

Lenfest called that a business decision under the owners' domain.

Hall, though, has argued that he had the unilateral power to fire Marimow, who refused to follow Hall's order to fire five senior editors.

Marimow said he had assurances that Hall did not control his fate.

He testified that he was hired by Katz and Norcross after conversations mediated by then-investigative reporter Nancy Phillips, who is Katz's longtime companion. She had worked with Marimow during his previous stints as editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.

Phillips, now the city editor, said she helped work on an “official version” of Marimow's hiring, for public consumption, that said then-Publisher Greg Osberg had been involved. The story was meant to protect Osberg's feelings, she said. Osberg testified that he had no part in the hiring and quit six weeks later.

The media company also operates the free Philly.com website, now run by Norcross' 25-year-old daughter, and fee-based websites for each newspaper.

It's changed hands five times in the past seven years and, like its peers in the industry, dropped precipitously in value. The company was sold for $515 million in 2006, nearly 10 times its purchase price last year.

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