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Fox affiliate WSVN-Channel 7′s parent company, Florida-based Sunbeam Television Corp., and longtime consumer reporter Carmel Cafiero are being sued by a Broward County, Fla., couple who claim they were falsely depicted in a news teaser broadcast four years ago. The teaser promoted a newscast titled “Puppy Pushers” and aired numerous times around May 30, 1996, the complaint states. The newscast was on Monica and Jeffrey Leicht and their former pet-selling business. Allegedly, it was designed to portray the Leichts as sellers of unhealthy pets to unsuspecting consumers. The civil suit, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court last week, alleges that the teaser, while purporting to show Monica Leicht and a crippled dog, actually pictured another woman and a healthy dog. It also claims the couple was depicted falsely because veteran consumer reporter Cafiero wanted to avenge herself on the Leichts for a minor traffic altercation the year before. “The suit is absolutely without merit,” said Channel 7 attorney Dana McElroy. The Leichts do have a history of dog abuse. They were convicted of animal cruelty in Cherokee County, Ga., more than a decade ago in connection with what a local paper termed a “puppy mill.” As a result, the American Kennel Club suspended their membership privileges. The couple was also charged by the Broward Sheriff’s Office in 1995 and 1996 with selling dogs without veterinary inspections or without required vaccines. They pleaded guilty in February 1997 to the sale of dogs and cats without proof they had been vaccinated properly, received 12 months’ probation and agreed to have no more than two dogs on their premises at any time. At the moment, they are being investigated by the Broward state attorney’s office and the Florida attorney general’s office on accusations they passed vinyl couches off as leather to unsuspecting customers. “We’ve received several complaints from consumers,” said Bob Buchner, assistant state attorney general. Nevertheless, the couple’s attorney, Richard Simring, of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Miami, said: “This case is about the accuracy and integrity of the news broadcast. This is not about the Leichts. It’s about the news broadcast.” The suit addresses the teaser but not the actual newscast. The promo, the complaint alleges, “staged fictional film footage in using a prop company that depicted a woman similar in appearance to Monica Leicht carrying a crippled and/or quadriplegic dog.” That broadcast was false because the woman was somebody else, and the dog was not crippled and it had no connection to the Leichts. The picture filed as evidence for the case shows a woman holding a dog in a sling. The broadcast was “deliberate, willful, wanton, intentional and malicious,” the complaint says. The Leichts are seeking $10 million in damages. The complaint further alleges that the teaser was really a result of an incident wholly unrelated to the newscast, namely a minor 1995 traffic altercation involving Cafiero and the Leichts. After that, “Cafiero used her position and authority as a news producer and correspondent … to exact personal vengeance on the Leichts by deliberately filming and broadcasting a partially rigged ‘investigative news’ story.” The details of the altercation aren’t in the complaint. Although the suit quotes from an FCC directive that states, “Rigging or slanting the news is a heinous act against the public interest,” the Leichts have not filed a formal complaint with the FCC against WSVN, Sunbeam or Cafiero. Cafiero is to be deposed in July.

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