Former Congressman’s Defamation Suit Against Columnist Goes Forward

By Mark Hamblett
New York Law Journal

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a slander suit brought by former California Congressman Gary Condit for statements made by columnist Dominick Dunne about the disappearance and death of Chandra Levy.

Southern District Judge Peter K. Leisure said yesterday that Mr. Condit has asserted enough facts to survive dismissal, based on comments Mr. Dunne made about the Levy case on three national talk shows and at dinner parties where he regaled guests with rumors concerning the congressman. “This action brings the Court to the tire-streaked intersection of the right of one citizen to protect his reputation and the right of another citizen to speak freely,” Judge Leisure began in Condit v. Dunne, 02 Civ. 9910.The decision will be published Monday.

Ms. Levy’s disappearance from her Washington, D.C., apartment in May 2001 was followed by an acknowledgment by Mr. Condit that he was a friend of the 24-year-old Bureau of Prisons employee. Her body was found in a city park a year after she disappeared.

There was widespread speculation that Mr. Condit and Ms. Levy had been romantically involved and that he was being investigated in her disappearance. Mr. Condit was later exonerated of any involvement in her death. Mr. Dunne, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, appeared on a syndicated radio talk show hosted by Laura Ingraham in December 2001. He told the audience that he had spoken with a “horse whisperer” from California who had information about Ms. Levy’s fate.

The information, Mr. Dunne said, was that Mr. Condit frequented parties at Middle

Eastern embassies in Washington for which young women had been procured and, at one of these gatherings, let it be known that he wanted to get rid of Ms. Levy because she was threatening to go public with certain information about Mr. Condit. The source, Mr. Dunne said, also reported that Ms. Levy was later put on a plane and dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr. Dunne said that he could not vouch for the authenticity of the information. Nonetheless he said later in the interview, “And, you know, if it is indeed true that

[Condit] is a welcomed guest at the Middle Eastern embassies; I mean what is a guy on the House Intelligence Committee doing at those embassies?”

Mr. Dunne repeated these stories at dinner parties in California and New York. He then went on Entertainment Tonight Online and Larry King Live to report that Mr. Condit rode with both the Hell’s Angels and another motorcycling group, and that he thought Ms.

Levy may have been taken away on a motorcycle by one of Mr. Condit’s friends.

Following the discovery of Ms. Levy’s remains in Washington’s Rock Creek Park in May

2002, Mr. Dunne told the Boston Herald that “the discovery of her body doesn’t let Congressman Gary Condit off the hook.” He was quoted in USA Today as saying, “I don’t think [Condit] killed her. I think he could have known it was going to happen.”

Mr. Condit filed suit in December 2002 for slander seeking $1 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages.

Mr. Condit opposed Mr. Dunne’s motion to dismiss by claiming the allegations made by the “horse whisperer” were false and that Mr. Dunne had defamed him by republishing

the falsehoods.Mr. Dunne argued that his statements were not actionable because they amounted to speculation, theories, opinions and “musings” about the case.

Judge Leisure said that the Dunne statements on the Laura Ingraham show “can be reasonably interpreted as constituting false assertions of fact.”

“Defendant associated plaintiff with an alleged plot, described in detail, to kill Ms. Levy by dropping her from a plane into the Atlantic Ocean, which was alleged to have been carried out in the presence of an Arab procurer who provided the sexual services of young women at Middle Eastern embassies frequented by plaintiff,” Judge Leisure said.

“In addition, defendant describes his subsequent contact with the FBI and his efforts to assist in the investigation of the accusations reported by the horse whisperer.”

‘Media Frenzy’ Rationale

Despite Mr. Dunne’s claim that he was offering surmises amidst a nationwide “media frenzy” on a talk show, where people are not necessarily tuning in to hear the facts,

Judge Leisure said “the statements can be interpreted as explicit republications of actual, detailed, facts.”

Judge Leisure then said Mr. Dunne’s assertion that his statements were mere opinions based on “disclosed facts” is “incorrect” because he “republished false statements of fact” and is therefore not exempt from a slander claim.

Mr. Dunne had also argued that he gave “signals” on the Laura Ingraham show to make it clear he was only offering speculation and opinions, including qualifiers such as “I can’t vouch for this” and “if he indeed is involved.” But Judge Leisure said Mr. Dunne’s argument is “belied by the facts and the law.”

The judge said Mr. Dunne “does appear to vouch” for the statements at certain points of the interview and that the “tone” of his exchange with Ms. Ingraham “appears to attempt to lend credit to the story.”

Mr. Dunne’s “partial attempts to distance himself from the allegations” do not merit dismissal of the claims, the judge said.

The judge went on to rule that the quotes from Mr. Dunne in Entertainment Tonight Online and his statements on Larry King Live and at the dinner parties sustain a defamation claim.

The judge dismissed the claims based on quotes in the two newspapers, finding that they “do not declare or imply false assertions of fact.”

L. Lin Wood and Katherine M. Ventulett of Atlanta and Mark E. Goidell of Lazer, Aptheker, Rosella & Yedid in Melville represent Mr. Condit.

Laura R. Handman and Samuel M. Leaf of Davis Wright Tremaine represent Mr. Dunne

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