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Libel case over mafia-Halliburton link dismissed

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 4, 2005

Libel case over mafia-Halliburton link dismissed

  • An investigative news article about a federal contractor’s connection to a company with reported Russian mafia ties cannot justify a libel suit despite questions of accuracy because Russian public officials did not prove “actual malice,” a federal judge ruled.

Oct. 4, 2005  ·   A federal judge has ruled that an August 2000 article connecting government contracting company Halliburton Inc. and its former CEO, Vice President Dick Cheney, to members of the Russian mafia can not be the basis of a libel suit because, as public figures, the Russians could not show that the article was printed with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.

“The key issue was the recognition of the First Amendment right to do battle in words rather than in court,” said David Allison, editor-at-large at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group that reports on public policy.

The U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., found that the plaintiffs “no doubt have the wherewithal to respond to erroneous publications through persuasion rather than litigation. The First Amendment demands that they pursue that path,” wrote Judge John D. Bates in the Sept. 27 ruling.

The court found that although the authors probably should have researched certain points further and investigated their sources a little more, the plaintiffs could show no proof of actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

“No claim is made that the defendants fabricated the assertions in the CPI article. Nor are the allegations of organized mob ties and drug trafficking so inherently improbably that actual malice can be presumed,” Bates wrote.

The Center for Public Integrity published on its Web site “Cheney Led Halliburton to Feast at Federal Trough” on Aug. 20, 2000. The article contained information regarding the billions of dollars in federal contracts and loans Halliburton received when Cheney ran the company. Among other issues, it discussed a loan lobbied for by Halliburton which was to go to Tyumen Oil Co. in Russia and guaranteed by the Export-Import Bank of the U.S. Halliburton would receive $292 million of the loan to refurbish oil fields for Tyumen. The article then noted allegations of organized crime and drug trafficking by the Alfa Group, Tyumen’s parent organization.

In September 2000, the Alfa Group, joined by other banks and Russian businessmen mentioned in the article, filed a defamation suit against the Center for Public Integrity.

The Center for Public Integrity faced enormous deadline pressure in putting together the story because it wanted it to run before the 2000 Republican National Convention, Allison said. But even under such pressure, Bates wrote that the center, “grounded their article on several intelligence sources, corroborating documents, and a wealth of reports in the United States and Russian media.”

The plaintiffs needed to show actual malice because the court found the Russian businessmen and banks to be public figures for the purposes of this case.

“Corporate plaintiffs are treated as public figures as a matter of law in defamation actions brought against mass media defendants involving matters of legitimate public interest,” Bates wrote. In addition, the two businessmen who filed suit, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, “are players on the world stage; hence they are limited public figures not only in Russia, but in the United States as well.”

(OAO Alfa Bank v. Center for Public Integrity; Media counsel: Elizabeth C. Koch, Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, Washington, D.C.)CM

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