Williams says in a statement of claim dated Wednesday that an editorial published Sept. 19 wrongly implies he influenced St. John's city councillors.
At issue was a closed-door council decision to spend $700,000 over two years to defray costs for the St. John's IceCaps hockey club. Williams is president and CEO of the American Hockey League franchise and farm team for the NHL's Winnipeg Jets.
The Telegram editorial under the heading "Buying Influence" called the decision involving the IceCaps and city council a "rental subsidy agreement." It says the IceCaps made election donations to most of the city councillors, which it notes is "all above board and totally expected in our political system."
The editorial then shifts into a broader discussion of what it describes as lax rules in "a ludicrously archaic and opaque system" governing contributions to leadership or nomination campaigns. Newfoundland and Labrador is among several provinces that do not impose donation limits, it says.
"Companies and wealthy individuals should not be allowed to buy political influence with hefty sums of cash or the equivalent in services," it concludes.
Williams, in his statement of claim containing allegations not proven in court, says the opening of the editorial clearly refers to him — especially when read along with related articles and columns published the same day.
Williams denies he tried to buy council's support.
"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," says the statement of claim.
"These comments are not only defamatory but they falsely and maliciously allege influence-peddling and conduct similar to a criminal breach of trust."
The claim alleges the editorial infers Williams "bribed" city council to vote for the rent reduction and that he made election donations to councillors "to obtain their future support for his business endeavours."
The statement says the council's rent cut was "based on sound economic principles" that helped ensure the IceCaps and related spinoffs remain in St. John's through 2015-16.
Williams is seeking unspecified compensation for various alleged damages along with legal costs.
"I was into a commercial negotiation on reduction of a very, very high rental for the stadium for the IceCaps and succeeded in getting that reduced," he said Thursday in an interview. "And then it was translated into a defamatory article that talked about influence."
Williams said the lawsuit is not about money.
"Your reputation is everything," said the veteran lawyer and entrepreneur who spent 10 years in politics before stepping down as premier in 2010 to resume business projects.
"If somebody libels you and defames you ... if you have the ability to do it, you have to take them on."
Steve Bartlett, managing editor of the Telegram, declined to comment as the matter is before the courts. No statement of defence has been filed.
The statement of claim says a lawyer for Williams on Sept. 26 demanded a written retraction and apology which the Telegram refused.
The Jets last month announced the IceCaps would stay in St. John's for another year through the 2015-16 season. It was good news for hockey fans in the city after the NHL team said last January it might move the IceCaps to Thunder Bay, Ont., mostly because of travel issues.
The IceCaps, now in their fourth season, are a major tenant at the Mile One Centre in St. John's. The 7,000-seat venue is owned by the city and operated by St. John's Sports and Entertainment Ltd.
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