POLITICS

Danny Williams sues Telegram for defamation

10/09/2014 09:22 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST
Former premier Danny Williams is suing Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest daily newspaper for defamation.

The lawsuit relates to an editorial published by the St. John’s Telegram last month.

That editorial concerned the rental subsidy provided to the American Hockey League team, the St. John’s IceCaps.

Williams is president and CEO of the IceCaps.

According to a statement of claim filed at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court, Williams alleges that comments in the editorial “falsely and maliciously allege influence-peddling and conduct similar to a criminal breach of trust.”

Williams says in court documents that he has suffered “substantial and irreversible damages” to his status as a businessman, lawyer and former premier.

“The plaintiff states that the editorial is replete with false and defamatory allegations, implications, assertions, innuendoes and/or comments concerning the plaintiff’s character which have caused the plaintiff to be defamed,” the statement of claim filed by Williams notes.

None of those allegations has been tested in court.

Telegram managing editor Steve Bartlett says the paper has no comment at this time, as the matter is before the courts.

Williams has not returned messages left by CBC News.

Editorial about rental subsidy

In mid-September, St. John's city councillors agreed to a $700,000 subsidy for St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, the corporation that runs Mile One Centre, to help defray the IceCaps' expenses over the next two seasons.

Councillors voted to provide the subsidy in a private meeting, but CBC News broke the story after receiving a leaked memo outlining the terms of the deal.

The Telegram editorial in question — headlined “Buying Influence” — ran four days later.

The editorial highlighted political donations made by the IceCaps, including some to St. John’s city councillors.

It touched on federal and provincial campaign contribution rules, including a lack of legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador about financial disclosure for party leadership contests.

“It could be argued that leadership elections are internal affairs, and that candidates are beholden only to the party itself,” the editorial notes. “But with the move towards more inclusive, electronic voting, these things hardly happen behind closed doors. And the victors stand to exert considerable power, especially if elected to the premier’s office.

“It’s high time the leaders of this province tied up these loose ends. Companies and wealthy individuals should not be allowed to buy political influence with hefty sums of cash or the equivalent in services.”

Williams says in court filings that those comments “clearly refer to him,” especially when read in the context of the entire editorial and two other articles and columns that appeared in the newspaper the same day.

“The editorial states that the plaintiff bought political influence to ensure that members of the St. John’s city council approved the rent reduction for the IceCaps,” the former premier’s statement of claim notes.

Williams alleges the newspaper’s editorial was understood to mean that he “bribed” city councillors.

The IceCaps CEO also references other “numerous” articles and columns in The Telegram that provided “critical” coverage of the subsidy deal.

On Sept. 26, according to court documents, his lawyer wrote the newspaper demanding a written retraction and apology.

The Telegram wrote back on Oct. 1 declining to do so.

Other defamation actions

This is not the first time Williams has either sued for defamation, or backed a colleague for doing so.

In 2012, he dropped litigation against the Sierra Club of Canada and environmentalist Bruno Marcocchio after they apologized for comments made on an open line radio show about the Muskrat Falls hydro project.

At the time, Williams indicated he still planned to sue political blogger Brad Cabana. The status of that legal action is not immediately clear.

In 2007, while he was premier, Williams publicly supported cabinet minister John Hickey’s decision to sue another former premier, Roger Grimes, for defamation.

"I'll tell anybody out there — if they're going to take down the people that are in public life, then they basically have to answer for it, and they'll have to answer for it in court," Williams told reporters at the time.

Williams also said he had no problems with Hickey using taxpayers' money to defend his reputation.

Grimes had made comments about Auditor General John Noseworthy naming Hickey as having double billed $3,770 in a string of claims from his constituency allowance.

That lawsuit was quietly dropped in 2012.