- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Throughout the six-month trial that led to Richard Scrushy’s acquittal in the $2.7 billion fraud at HealthSouth Corp., a small, influential newspaper consistently published articles sympathetic to the defense of the fired CEO.

Audry Lewis, the author of those stories in the Birmingham Times, the city’s oldest black-owned paper, now says she was secretly working on behalf of Mr. Scrushy, who she says paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before publication.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press show the Lewis Group wrote a $5,000 check to Audry Lewis on April 29, 2005 — the day Mr. Scrushy hired the company. The head of the company, Times founder Jesse J. Lewis Sr., is not related to Audry Lewis.

The firm wrote another $5,000 check that day to the Rev. Herman Henderson, who employs Audry Lewis at his Believers Temple Church and was among the black preachers supporting Mr. Scrushy who were present in the courtroom throughout.

Audry Lewis and Mr. Henderson now say Mr. Scrushy owes them $150,000 for the newspaper stories and other public relations work, including getting black pastors to attend the trial in a bid to sway the mostly black jury.

The prosecutor in Mr. Scrushy’s case said there would not be anything illegal about someone offering money for favorable news articles, and jurors have said they were not influenced by media coverage but by a lack of evidence that Mr. Scrushy was involved in the scheme to overstate earnings at HealthSouth.

In an e-mail response to questions from the AP, Mr. Scrushy denied authorizing payments to Mr. Henderson or Audry Lewis for any work on his behalf.

Mr. Scrushy said he “hit the ceiling” when he learned that the PR firm had paid Mr. Henderson, but added that he had considered Audry Lewis to be “a nice Christian woman that thought we had been treated badly and she wanted to help.”

Now he said he knows they are both “about the bucks.”

Jesse Lewis, whose son James E. Lewis Sr. is listed as the paper’s editor, denied being part of any scheme to plant favorable coverage of Mr. Scrushy in the paper. “We are in the advertising and public relations business, period,” he said.

Audry Lewis’ columns were uniformly flattering toward the defense, both before and after money changed hands. After Mr. Scrushy hired the Lewis Group, her stories moved from inside the newspaper to the front page.

The day jurors got the case, the Times featured a front-page piece by Audry Lewis saying “pastors and community leaders have rallied around Mr. Scrushy showing him the support of the Christian and African American community.”

Audry Lewis said she initially wrote the columns and submitted them to the paper for free because she believed Mr. Scrushy was innocent.

“Ms. Lewis is not and has never been an employee of the Birmingham Times,” James Lewis said, adding that the paper — which employs only 15 paid staff members — receives many of its articles from the community. “We didn’t have a whole lot of people writing about Richard Scrushy during the trial so we probably tended to use her stuff a little bit more.”

James Lewis said he has never met Audry Lewis.

“Had I known that Richard Scrushy was paying someone to put an article or series of articles in the paper I would have said, ‘Why don’t you pay us?’ You could run a full-page ad in our paper for less than you could run this editorial piece in the paper,” he said.

Staff writer Kara Rowland contributed to this article.

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