Former New York Governor, Attorney General, and CNN host Eliot Spitzer—who The Observer had a nice chat with last week over the recent rage directed at Wall Street’s ratings agencies—is this week being sued for libel over a year-old column for Slate.
The lawsuit accuses Mr. Spitzer of knowingly acting with “actual malice” against former Marsh & McLennan executive William Gilman by writing a column for Slate entitled ‘They Still Don’t Get It.’ The column, published one year ago, today, doesn’t mention Mr. Gilman by name.
When Eliot Spitzer was New York’s Attorney General, he opened an investigation into Marsh, which resulted in eight indictments, an $850M settlement from Marsh to the State of New York, and 21 guilty pleas for various offenses stemming from the investigation. Mr. Gilman, a former marketing director for Marsh, was found guilty of a felony antitrust charge in 2008; in July 2010, his conviction was overturned due to new evidence in the case.
Mr. Spitzer penned the column for Slate on August 22, 2010. In it, he took on the Wall Street Journal‘s opinion section over a column they wrote entitled “Eliot Spitzer’s Last Admirer,” regarding then-Attorney General and soon-to-be-governor Andrew Cuomo’s defense of Mr. Spitzer’s prosecutorial legacy. From the column, the accused offending passage:
The Journal‘s editorial also seeks to disparage the cases my office brought against Marsh & McLennan for a range of financial and business crimes. The editorial notes that two of the cases against employees of the company were dismissed after the defendants had been convicted. The judge found that certain evidence that should have been turned over to the defense was not. (The cases were tried after my tenure as attorney general.) Unfortunately for the credibility of the Journal, the editorial fails to note the many employees of Marsh who have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms, or that Marsh’s behavior was a blatant abuse of law and market power: price-fixing, bid-rigging, and kickbacks all designed to harm their customers and the market while Marsh and its employees pocketed the increased fees and kickbacks.
Via an Associated Press report, this is where Mr. Gilman takes umbrage:
In his complaint, Gilman said Spitzer defamed him in writing, stating that “Marsh’s behavior was a blatant abuse of law and market power: price-fixing, bid-rigging and kickbacks all designed to harm their customers and the market while Marsh and its employees pocketed the increased fees and kickbacks.”
Gilman also said Spitzer defamed him in writing by stating that “many employees of Marsh” have been “convicted and sentenced to jail terms,” when none had.
Mr. Spitzer has declined to comment on the case to Bloomberg and the Associated Press. Slate and The Washington Post Company—which owns Slate—are also named as defendants in the suit.
Last summer, then-Observer media reporter John Koblin wrote about the ongoing issues plaguing the pursuit of libel lawsuits, which are dwindling in numbers. The standard for libel lawsuits—New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)—created the contemporary standard for what remains the general litmus test of libel to this day: a standard of “actual malice,” wherein something is published with “reckless disregard” for the truth. A high burden is placed on plaintiffs to prove this, which prevents everyone from suing everyone over anything published anywhere at any point in time. From last year’s Observer piece, ‘The End of Libel?‘:
In the most recent study, the Media Law Resource Center found that libel trials in the 2000s were down more than 50 percent from the 1980s. In the 1980s, the center found 266 trials; in the ’90s, that number dropped to 192; in the past decade it dropped to 124. In 2009, only nine surfaced.
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