By the twin measures of ratings success and journalism that gets results, NBC news producer Marsha Bartel should have been riding high.
Since joining "To Catch a Predator" in early 2006, the 49-year-old veteran journalist had helped set up four different sting operations that led to the arrests of 112 men who allegedly used Internet chat rooms to try to have sex with minors.
But Bartel wasn't happy. In fact, she grew increasingly troubled by the highly rated program's methods, which, she said, violated the network's ethical guidelines, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week. She claims that her repeated complaints were ignored and that she refused to continue working on the show just before a sting in Petaluma, Calif., that netted 29 men in three days in late August.
Four months later, Bartel was let go by the network in a massive round of layoffs. Now she's seeking at least $1 million in damages from the network.
In the lawsuit, Bartel claims that she was fired because of her complaints.
According to the complaint, Bartel said that the program violated ethical standards through its relationship with Perverted Justice, an online vigilante group whose volunteers pose as juveniles on the Internet in order to lure their targets. By paying the group, NBC has given Perverted Justice a "financial incentive to lie to trick targets of its sting," according to Bartel.
She also claims that the network failed to provide her with the names of the group's volunteers and that the group does not provide complete transcripts of their chats with minors, making it impossible to "independently verify the accuracy of those transcripts."
And Bartel contends that NBC's relationship with local law enforcement was unethical, claiming that the network provided the police with video equipment and video tapes and "unethically pays or indirectly reimburses law enforcement officials to participate in the 'Predator' stings in order to enhance and intensify the dramatic effect of the show."
She claims that the network covers up improper behavior by police officers such as "goofing off by waving rubber chickens in the faces of sting targets while forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them."
Bartel, who claims that she signed a four-year contract with NBC from December 2005 to December 2009, tried negotiating a termination agreement with the network for several weeks. "She was offered a significant termination package that wasn't quite acceptable," her lawyer Roger C. Simmons told ABC News. "It would have sealed her lips…and the contract numbers were greater than the termination numbers."
Simmons added, "My case is very simple: They didn't want to hear that this was a loose and improper news method and they closed their ears to it and fired her to shut her up."
According to NBC, Bartel's contract gave the network the option of not renewing her employment at the end of 2006.