Jeff Greene threatens to sue St. Petersburg Times

08/13/10 Kate Bradshaw
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On Wednesday, a lawyer for billionaire U.S. Senate hopeful Jeff Greene sent a letter to the St. Petersburg Times demanding they retract a story printed Sunday connecting him with crooked real estate investor James Delbert McConville. Greene claims all he did was sell a 300-unit condo complex in the Mojave Desert.

"I sold a building to a complete stranger. Someone, that to this day in my life, I have never seen, spoken to, have had anything to do with."

The letter disputes numerous statements within the piece, which suggests that Greene benefited from selling the La Mirage condo units to a fraudulent investor and several so-called “straw buyers,” all of whom defaulted on their loans. Earlier today, Greene said he’ll sue if the paper does not print a retraction of equal prominence.

"It's dishonest and I intend to stand up to the St. Petersburg Times. You can be sure that if there's not a retraction printed on the front page of the St. Petersburg Times, we will sue the St. Petersburg Times."

The story adds to Greene’s reputation for making hundreds of millions of dollars betting against the real estate market – perhaps not a major bragging point in an election year occurring amid a recession. Jim Lake teaches media law and is an attorney with Thomas & LoCicero in Tampa. He says cases like this are usually decided in favor of the news media.

"This is the kind of liable case that the United States Supreme Court says is to be the most difficult for someone bringing the case to win. Or putting it the other way, I'd say this case involves the kind of speech that is most protected under the First Amendment. That is speech about a political figure. In this case it's a political candidate, someone who is seeking to be a public official. The U.S. Supreme Court, for close to 50 years now, has said repeatedly that speech about public officials, like this, is to be highly protected. And liable claims, based on that kind of speech, can't win or can't be successful unless the person bringing the case proves that the newspaper new that the statements were false or seriously doubted that they were true."

Greene maintains that he kept McConville at arm’s length, and that the Times used official documents to misconstrue sketchy dealings between the two. Lake says as long as the Times stuck with what’s on the books, the Greene camp has no case.

"The news media are entitled to interpret government documents and present, what the U.S. Supreme Court has called, a rational interpretation of them. It sounds as if the documents here are ambiguous. They can e read a couple of different ways. There seems to be some contradiction, and the U.S. Supreme Court has said, specifically, that the news media, confronted with an ambiguous situation, are entitled to come up with an interpretation that makes sense and present it. Even if there are other possible interpretations."

The letter comes less than two weeks before a heated Democratic primary between Greene and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. The contest has been largely characterized by personal attacks. Lake says that even if a judge did find the Times to be at fault, it’s doubtful that a judge would be able to grant any kind of injunctive relief by August 24.

"Well, I think it is highly unlikely that anything will be resolved in the court system before then. My suspicion is that the Greene campaign is hoping for some sort of retraction, or some sort of acknowledgement from the St. Pete Times of the argument that his lawyer has made. I would not expect the court system to do anything, in that short of window."

The St. Petersburg Times declined to be interviewed for this story, but issued a statement saying their coverage of Greene and his dealings has been “thorough and fair, and the reporting is well-documented in public records.” They welcomed Greene to submit a letter to the editor. The Times isn’t the first news outlet to publish a story about the Greene-McConville connection.

"It seems to me they got their sources from the same place I did, which was, of course, the public record. Which is what real estate is all about. That's what we rely on. That's what title companies ensure, public record. I didn't see anything in there that's deviated from that."

Journalist and Mortgage broker Pat Flannery first started blogging about it on his real estate blog, Flannery says the Times sourced the same documents he has. But if Flannery picked up on that connection more than a year ago, why didn’t Greene threaten suit against him?

"There's nothing that he could dispute because I confined myself to the public record, the documents that he has recorded. They were, in fact, grant deeds, which in some states are known as warranty deeds because the person who signs them warrants, at the time that they are recorded, that they are the owner of the property."

The Jeff Greene campaign declined to be interviewed on the matter, as did that of his Democratic opponent Kendrick Meek.

Florida Public Radio’s Tom Flanigan contributed to this report.

The Times story

Greene's lawyer's letter

Pat Flannery's blog, story on the suit

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