The question comes to mind after news broke late last week that State Sen. Bryan Taylor (R-Prattville) had filed a lawsuit against Alabama Political Reporter (APR), claiming the Web site had published false and defamatory information about him in a July article titled "Shadowy Conduct of the Man Who Would be Ethics Chief."
By "certain Alabama Republicans," we are referring to members of the "Riley Machine," headed by former Governor Bob Riley (2002-10). The question in our lead paragraph has special resonance here at Legal Schnauzer because Rob Riley, a Birmingham attorney and the former governor's son, filed a dubious defamation lawsuit against my wife and me last October, causing me to be unlawfully incarcerated for five months.
I doubt that APR's Bill and Susan Britt will wind up in jail, in part because my case received ample coverage in both the online and mainstream press, giving the United States the embarrassing distinction of being the only country in the western hemisphere to incarcerate a journalist in 2013. Plus, it might turn out that Taylor has a meritorious claim. But on initial review, it seems to emit a foul odor reminiscent of the one that came from Rob Riley's lawsuit.
First, consider the timing of Taylor's complaint. He filed it on September 26 in Etowah County Circuit Court. That's exactly one week after APR reported that Deputy Attorney General Sonny Reagan, another member of Team Riley, had been charged with leaking information from the Lee County grand jury that is investigating fellow team member and House Speaker Mike Hubbard. It was nine days after APR reported that Reagan had been forced to testify before the grand jury and wound up asserting the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself--and documents associated with that proceeding indicated the Riley Machine itself was among the investigation's targets.
Second, consider that Taylor is a public official and has to clear an extremely high hurdle to win a defamation case. Under the New York Times v. Sullivan test, Taylor has to prove "actual malice," meaning the Britts knew information they printed about him was false or they exhibited "reckless disregard" to its truth or falsity.
Third, consider that the article alleged to be defamatory was almost as critical of the Riley administration as it was of Taylor. Here is a sampling:
According to Riley’s January 2007 press statement, Taylor was hired by the Riley administration as a personal aide in February 2006. However, his receipt of campaign funds from the Riley campaign paint a different picture. Taylor was paid $684.61 bi-weekly by the Riley campaign. These payments in this amount began on March 31, 2006 and continued until December 29, 2006. Taylor also received additional payments from the campaign during this time, including $925.16 in March 2006, $518.00 in July 2006, $351.94 in October 2006 and $2,100.00 in December 2006 days before the governor’s office announced his promotion to policy director. . . .
The campaign expenditures from Riley present another issue for Taylor that is clearly improper, unethical, and potentially criminal.
During the same time Taylor was a paid staffer of the Riley campaign, he was also listed numerous times as a passenger on an aircraft owned by the State of Alabama. Flight logs maintained by the State show that Taylor was on board a state aircraft more than 90 times in 2006. Only 7 of the 90 flights were reported to have been reimbursed to the State, according to the flight logs. These logs also indicate that many of the flights included campaign events for Bob Riley, and most were never noted to have been reimbursed to the State by the campaign.
Then we have this heavy-duty kicker, focusing on Taylor's former employer, the Bradley Arant law firm of Birmingham:
All told, the Riley administration paid Taylor’s former employers $2,250,000. Bradley Arant received $6,000,000 in state contracts during that period. How much influence Taylor wielded over these decisions is not fully known. However, his inconsistent statement of facts coupled with the Riley administration funneling millions to his former employer raises more than a few questions about Taylor’s ability to head Alabama’s Ethics Commission.
Some are starting to suggest that Taylor’s behavior in helping to direct Bob Riley’s political patronage machine calls into question his fitness to serve in any capacity charged with overseeing ethical conduct by our public officials.
The APR article appears to be well researched, so it's hard to see how Taylor could show the kind of "reckless disregard" for the truth that is needed to win a defamation case.
But maybe that's not the point of his lawsuit; maybe it's more about intimidation than defamation. Maybe it's designed as a weapon to chill APR's reporting about Sonny Reagan and the Lee County investigation.
We can show numerous signs that Rob Riley's claim against me was not a standard defamation lawsuit. We also see similarities between Taylor's complaint and one Birmingham lawyer Bill Baxley drew up against me, signs that Taylor is after information about APR's supporters and sources more than anything else.
Who, by the way, served as Sonny Reagan's lawyers when he tried to escape testifying before the Lee County grand jury? It was none other than Rob Riley and Bill Baxley.
With his lawsuit against APR, is Bryan Taylor pulling from the Rob Riley/Bill Baxley playbook? We will address that question and more in an upcoming post.