Friday, June 21, 2002
Former Rampart Officers’ Libel Suit Against Newspaper Held a SLAPP
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge yesterday granted an anti-SLAPP motion filed by the Los Angeles Times in a libel suit brought against the newspaper by two former Rampart anti-gang officers.
Judge Irving S. Feffer threw out the action brought by Dustin Sclater and Ross Hay, who claimed they were defamed in two articles written by Times reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait during the height of almost daily revelations about the LAPD corruption scandal that engulfed their division.
The articles, published on April 8 and 9, 2000, reported that a key prosecution witness in a pending murder case said in an interview that Sclater and Hay and, in a separate incident, Detective John Curiel pressured him to falsely identify a rival gang member as the triggerman. The first article also revealed Curiel lied on the stand in testifying in the murder case.
A year after the articles were published, Hay and Sclater sued the Times, the parent Tribune Publishing Company, and the reporters, claiming the articles subjected them to “loss of their reputation, shame, mortification, and hurt feelings.”
The officers had requested a retraction from the Times shortly after the publication, but it was denied, with the explanation that the “facts as they are known to the Los Angeles Times were fairly and accurately reported.”
The articles also led to an investigation by the Internal Affairs Division of the LAPD, which eventually cleared the officers.
The officers alleged that Hay, now a detective in the LAPD’s Pacific Division, was denied promotions that he would have otherwise been given but for the accusations in the articles. Sclater has since left the department and is now employed by a department in another state, having left California in part because of the repercussions of the articles, Lloyd K. Chapman, the officers’ attorney, said.
The newspaper’s attorneys argued that the officers had no standing to bring the suit because, as police officers, they are public officials and not protected from having allegations about them having to do with an area of public concern published.
“In the wake of Detective Curiel’s admittedly false testimony, Carrillo’s allegations of misconduct by Sclater and Hay raised issues of the utmost public importance, especially with ongoing revelations of Rampart Division abuses,” the defendants said in their motion to strike.
The plaintiffs’ opposition to the motion characterized Lait and Glover as “overzealous, fame seeking reporters” who had a personal vendetta against the LAPD and its officers and wanted nothing more than a good story that would once again show department corruption. In the more than 50 stories written by Lait and Glover between 1999 and 2000 claiming misconduct by LAPD officers, there was not one article praising the efforts of officers or broaching the possibility of an officer’s innocence, the plaintiffs said.
Chapman argued the reporters’ source, Evelio “Rudy” Carrillo, did not make any accusations against the officers until after he was approached by the two reporters and told that Sclater was “a crook” and that he needed to do something to “help get this guy off the street.” At the end of the interview, Glover and Lait had Carrillo sign a declaration under perjury that what he told them was true.
Times attorney Alonzo Wickers IV, of Davis Wright Tremaine, said the ruling reaffirmed the protections reporters have when covering public officials.
“It just underscores how difficult it is to report on these kinds of stories,” Wickers said.
The press needs to be given a little bit of latitude in covering public officials, Wickers said, noting that the reporters made every effort to be fair and balanced. Hay and Sclater were contacted for comment, but did not return the calls, he said.
Chapman expressed disappointment at the ruling and said an appeal would be filed once he saw the judge’s order, which a court official said was mailed to counsel late yesterday but was not available for public inspection.
“We knew that it was a tough case, but I still think these officers have a valid case,” Chapman said.
Chapman also protested the fact there was no discovery permitted in the case. A motion for discovery, which requested the notes and tape recordings of any meeting with Carrillo, was filed June 14.
The anti-SLAPP statute stays all discovery once a motion to strike is filed, subject to the court’s discretionary authority to permit discovery as to issues relevant to the motion.
“How can the court accept the contention that the reporting was ‘fair and accurate’ if the court didn’t have an opportunity to look at the information that was provided to [Lait and Glover]?,” Chapman said. “That’s what I objected to most.”
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company