Mike Barz wants the world to know he never groped, fondled or even hugged the co-worker whose complaint against him led to his firing as morning news anchor at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32.
In his first public comment since his dismissal last summer, Barz, 39, called the episode "a fabricated story" and said he is taking legal action to win reinstatement and back pay. An arbitration hearing is expected to be scheduled this week.
"I expect that as this process plays out, people will realize the truth," he said. "It's all been very unfair and unfortunate because it has dragged my name through the mud."
A Fox Chicago spokeswoman confirmed that the station was aware of his grievance, but declined to comment on personnel matters.
For a time, Barz seemed to be on a fast track to network stardom. A seven-year stint as morning sports anchor on Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Channel 9 led to a high-profile gig as features correspondent and fill-in weatherman at ABC's "Good Morning America," based in New York. But shifting fortunes and a change in top producers at the show brought him back to local television via Fox Chicago in 2007.
After more than two years as anchor of "Good Day Chicago," Barz was fired July 15 -- five days after he and about two dozen other Fox staffers attended a party at the Reagle Beagle, for Margaret Shortridge, a reporter whose contract was not renewed.
Although Barz said he has numerous witnesses (including his fiancé, Fox reporter Tera Williams) who'll swear he never had any untoward physical contact with anyone at the party, a female news anchor who was also there reportedly lodged a complaint with management that Barz had "hugged her inappropriately" and made her feel uncomfortable.
Barz declined to name the anchor who complained or speculate on her motive, but one scenario suggests it may have been a way to inoculate herself in contract negotiations with the station. Merely making the claim -- so the theory goes -- would strengthen her bargaining position.
In any case, an investigation by management led to Barz's immediate dismissal, essentially voiding the eight months left on his contract, which was said to be worth $500,000 a year.
In these austere times, saving such a high salary could have been reason enough for Fox bosses to cut Barz without a second thought. The fact that the ratings for "Good Day Chicago" were flat -- as was his chemistry with co-anchors Jan Jeffcoat and Tamron Hall --didn't help either.
Barz acknowledged that the biggest factor against him was an incident two years earlier at a going-away party for a production assistant. His flirtatious dancing with a fellow employee was reported back to management by another staffer, resulting in a two-day suspension for Barz in September 2007.
Barz now calls that earlier incident a "misunderstanding" that he was never able to clarify because his bosses ordered him not to talk about it.
"Nothing that I did that night was inappropriate," he said. "I was just leaving the party, trying to be a wise ass with people who were being wise asses themselves. But by not being allowed to speak about it then, it took on a life of its own."
To fight his firing, Barz has hired a lawyer and filed a grievance through his union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
In 2006, AFTRA won a huge victory against Fox when an arbitrator awarded full back pay and severance to 18-year veteran sports anchor Bruce Wolf, who'd been fired for "keying" a car in an off-air bit taped at the Chicago Auto Show. As in Barz's case, many believed Wolf's incident was used as a convenient excuse to trim the payroll.
A divorced father of three young children who live with him, Barz is planning an April wedding to Williams, who's been a general assignment reporter at Fox Chicago since late 2006.
"The No. 1 thing for people to know is that I am exactly the same way off the air as I am on the air -- a fun-loving, caring guy who would never do anything to anyone to make them uncomfortable or that could be perceived as inappropriate," he said.
Although he looks relaxed, fit and happy to be away from the stress of morning television, Barz said he's eager to get back into the business here.
"I've worked very hard to establish my career in Chicago -- a city I love and adore -- and I expect to have a long-lasting career here," he said. "I want to be in an environment that fosters teamwork and camaraderie. I want to work for a family -- not a bunch of individuals."