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Star Tribune publisher says he took data from former employer

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Par Ridder
Par Ridder is the publisher of the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. He moved to that position from his former post as publisher of the Pioneer Press.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

(AP)  Par Ridder, the publisher at the center of a legal fight between Minnesota's metro dailies, acknowledged in court testimony Monday that he took confidential computer files and a folder of noncompete agreements - including his own - when he left the St. Paul Pioneer Press for the Star Tribune.      

 In videotaped testimony, Ridder admitted copying documents from his Pioneer Press computer and transferring them to his new computer at the Star Tribune, then sharing some of the documents with key Star Tribune executives.

      "I had profit numbers, revenue numbers, expense numbers," and sensitive information on advertisers and personnel, he said.

      Ridder's testimony kicked off a three-day hearing on the Pioneer Press's request to block him and two other former Pioneer Press executives from working at the Star Tribune for at least a year. The key issue is whether the noncompete agreements are enforceable under Minnesota law; the Star Tribune asserts they are not.

      Ridder, 38, was hired by the Star Tribune in March. The move was a surprise given the papers' fierce rivalry and the Ridder family's long affiliation with the Pioneer Press.

      All three employees signed the noncompete agreements when the Pioneer Press was still owned by Knight Ridder Inc. Ridder testified that Art Brisbane, then a senior vice president at Knight Ridder, verbally released them while preparations were being made to sell the St. Paul newspaper.

      "He said 'yes' or 'OK' or something in the affirmative," Ridder said.

      But Ridder acknowledged their release was never put in writing.

      Ridder was present in the courtroom as his video deposition was played back. The defense may call him as a witness later during the hearing. Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group Inc., which controls the Pioneer Press, was also in the courtroom.

      On his last day with the Pioneer Press, Ridder said, his assistant, Barb Cartalucca, surprised him when she said she still had a folder in her desk containing the noncompete agreements.

      "He said, 'I'm not really comfortable with having them here,"' Cartalucca testified.

      Ridder said he was worried about how the Pioneer Press' owners would react to his sudden defection to their newspaper's bigger competitor. He said he was concerned he'd be ordered to leave without taking anything but his car keys.

      "I was concerned that those documents could be used to slow my progress on to the Star Tribune," he said.

      Cartalucca told him she would take them home and shred them, Ridder said. But he decided later, after consulting with his lawyer, that that wasn't a good idea. He caught up with her in a parking ramp and retrieved the packet. Cartalucca backed up his account.

      Brisbane, who also testified via videotape, said he couldn't recall any discussion with Ridder about releasing him and the others from their noncompete agreements. By contrast, he said, he did recall conversations with Ridder in 2005 when Ridder wanted to cancel the noncompete agreements of two other Pioneer Press officials who he wanted to ease out of the newspaper.

      Brisbane also testified he was sure that he would have consulted with other Knight Ridder executives before cancelling Ridder's noncompete agreement. He said those discussions eventually would have included Ridder's father, Knight Ridder Chairman Tony Ridder.

      And given that Knight Ridder was preparing the Pioneer Press for sale, Brisbane indicated that agreeing to release the publisher from his commitment would have been a serious decision. He said senior management at a newspaper is considered part of its asset base, particularly a "strong manager like Par Ridder."

      Two of Ridder's new bosses also testified by video. OhSang Kwon, a partner with Avista Capital Partners, which owns the Star Tribune, said Ridder had told him when they were hiring him that his noncompete agreement had been repealed, and he wasn't sure if it was valid in the first place.

      James Finkelstein, another partner at Avista, said Ridder should not have brought the confidential computer documents with him to the Star Tribune.

      "It was clearly a mistake. ... Nobody would ever suggest that confidential information should be brought to our paper," Finkelstein said.

      Lawyers for the Star Tribune argued in a court filing previewing their defense last week that Ridder intended to use the spreadsheets only as templates for creating similar forms in his new position.

      Mark Lanterman, a computer forensics expert hired to examine Star Tribune and Pioneer Press computers and storage devices, testified his company found files Ridder copied on several pieces of Star Tribune equipment. He said they determined that around 3,300 files from Ridder's Pioneer Press laptop were copied onto a USB storage device March 1 and 2, and were copied from there onto his Star Tribune laptop March 6, a day after Ridder was hired.

      Lanterman, chief technology officer and CEO for Computer Forensic Services Inc. of Minnetonka, said his company is still examining 30 terabytes of data turned over in the case to determine how far the files Ridder copied might have circulated.

      "I have no confidence that I have found everything," Lanterman said.