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Mayor Sam Says He Was Defamed

Sullivan's lawyer sent accusatory letter to councillor opponent.

By Monte Paulsen 10 Dec 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Monte Paulsen is The Tyee's investigative editor. He welcomes your e-mail and invites respectful commentary in the forum below.

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Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan.

A private lawyer writing on behalf of Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan has accused City Coun. Raymond Louie of making "untrue and defamatory" statements, and warned the opposition councillor to "be cognizant of" the mayor's view on such statements in the future.

The ambiguous letter neither cites which statements Mayor Sullivan regards as defamatory, nor threatens legal action.*

Mayor Sullivan's spokesman said that all elected officials at city hall are provided with legal protection if someone makes defamatory comments about them.

Coun. Louie said: "The letter is not asking for an apology. And I am not offering one."

B.C. Civil Liberties Association president Jason Gratl warned that such letters could have a chilling effect on future debate at Vancouver City Hall.

"Sending letters of this type is an unfortunate attempt to stifle public debate on an issue of public interest," Gratl said. "Trying to limit public discussion and criticism on election financing issues by sending out such messages is inappropriate in a democracy."

'Defamatory and untrue statements'

"I have been asked to write on behalf of Mayor Sam Sullivan," begins the Nov. 21 letter from William S. Berardino, Q.C., of Hunter Litigation Chambers.

Berardino states that he reviewed "materials" including an October media appearance by Louie and other city councillors, and a Vision Vancouver press release in which Louie was not quoted.

"There are in those materials a number of statements which are not only untrue but are defamatory of Mayor Sam Sullivan," Berardino asserts.

The "materials" cited contain more than 6,000 words, and are generally critical of Mayor Sullivan's fundraising practices. Berardino's letter does not specify which statements he regards as untrue or defamatory.

"I have been instructed to advise that although Mayor Sullivan does not propose to commence a court action at this time, nor does he even seek an apology, although one certainly should be forthcoming, his position on this matters [sic] is as follows," Bernardino continues.

"Criticism and constructive debate on issues of public importance should be encouraged," Berardino continues. "Defamatory and untrue statements should have no part in such legitimate debate. The Mayor hopes and trusts in the coming months you will not only share these views but will also be cognizant of them."

'Public ought to be concerned'

"It does look like a shot across the bow," said Gratl, who had seen the letter.

"The chilling effect that a letter such as this would have on freedom of expression should be a very real concern for the public," Gratl said.

"Lawsuits cost money to defend. Much time and effort can be spent dealing with the distraction of a lawsuit. Elected representatives might reasonably be inclined to remain silent on important matters, rather than deal with the hassles and expense of a lawsuit. The public ought to be concerned about that," Gratl said.

Gratl said tactics like these are rare.

"Because it is so ill-advised and so clearly undemocratic, it's rare to see moves of this type," Gratl said. "The civil litigation system should not be used to undermine the ability of elected representatives to speak in the public interest."

Gratl predicted that Sullivan would back away from the letter.

"The nature of the letter is ambiguous enough that the mayor could step away from any suggestion of a threat and still save face," Gratl said.

'I chose my words carefully'

Councillor Louie had received the letter prior to the Dec. 3 press conference at which he called for in investigation into Sullivan's handling of a $5,136 donation made by the Sullivan-run Nanitch Policy Society to the Non-Partisan Association.

When asked whether the letter had a chilling effect on his call for an investigation, Louie demurred.

"I chose my words carefully," he said. "The letter highlights the seriousness of this situation."

Louie is among Sullivan's most vocal critics, and is considering a run for the mayor's office in 2008.

"The letter is tremendously ironic given the many untrue statements made by the Mayor's spokesman, David Hurford," Louie said. Louie cited Hurford's allegation -- subsequently proven untrue -- that CUPE (the union that represents municipal workers) paid off Vision Vancouver's campaign debt.

Louie also said he would not be dissuaded by Sullivan's actions.

"This letter is not going to distract Vision Vancouver from our work to make ongoing campaign disclosure a reality in the city of Vancouver," Louie said. "We will continue to challenge all parties and individuals to fully disclose who is giving money to them."

Mayor unavailable for comment

The Tyee contacted Mayor Sullivan's office on Friday, Dec 7. spokesman Hurford replied via e-mail on Dec. 11.*

"Mr. Berardino was retained by the Mayor following discussions with city staff and legal department. For your information, all elected officials at city are provided with legal protection if someone makes defamatory comments about them," Hurford wrote.

"Given this situation involved another member of Council, the legal department advised that outside Council would be best. The lawyer reviewed the statements and considered them defamatory. He recommended the course of action the Mayor took."

Hurford would not say who paid for the letter: "Any issues around costs would be an administrative matter between the lawyer and city legal."

On Dec. 7, Hurford offered the following statement on behalf of the mayor:

"Raymond Louie is a desperate politician. He has absolutely no policies that resonate with the public. All he can do is sling mud. When you throw mud you lose ground. That's what Louie is finding now. He's probably more desperate now than when he made those statements."

*We updated this story on Dec. 12 to include spokesman Hurford's replies to The Tyee's questions.

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