Like most politicians, Eighth District City Councilman Juan Vargas hungers for publicity, but Vargas may regret one occasion when the press gave him the attention he asked for.
A little over a year ago, Vargas called a news conference to denounce a federal court verdict that awarded some $200,000 in civil damages to Thad Poppell, a 63-year-old sex-club operator. Poppell had sued the city for violating his civil rights by harassing him and his patrons. Vargas joined a chorus of outraged commentators, who belatedly learned of Poppell's victory several months after it happened and some four years after Poppell filed his case.
It was an outrage, Vargas told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, for the city to be forced to pay damages to "a man who infests our community with nothing more than shaded prostitution and drugs."
Problem is, Poppell was never found to have practiced prostitution or to have dealt drugs in the neighborhood the San Diego Police Department calls Stockton. In fact, police detailed to watch Poppell's club at 3488 E Street reported a marked absence of such activities.
On April 15 of this year, Poppell took the remarkable action of suing Vargas for defamation, saying that Vargas had falsely accused him of committing crimes of which Poppell was demonstrably innocent. Moreover, Poppell charged, Vargas either lied outright when he made his accusation or willfully chose to ignore the truth. Poppell has asked for damages to be specified later.
For Vargas to be sued for defamation for something he said as a city councilman is the legal equivalent of a one-in-a-million shot. Public officials enjoy broad free-speech protections under the California and federal constitutions. Assistant city attorney Frank Devaney, the lead attorney on the Vargas case, could recall only one other such suit in the past ten years or so -- and that was also against Vargas. That case, like most defamation suits against public officials, died an early judicial death.
Poppell's case is still alive, having survived its first major challenge with a September 26 finding by Superior Court Judge Anthony C. Joseph. In a sign that bodes ill for Vargas, should the case go to trial, Judge Joseph went so far as to "editorialize" (as he put it) from the bench about citizens' distrust of elected officials.
At issue was a motion by Devaney to have Poppell's complaint thrown out as a SLAPP suit, a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. A SLAPP suit is an action intended to stop the defendant. A plaintiff who is found to have filed one must pay the other side's legal costs and, possibly, additional fines. In the earlier defamation suit against Vargas, the city's threat to file a SLAPP suit motion was enough to convince the plaintiff to withdraw.
In the SLAPP suit motion, Devaney argued that Poppell had no chance of winning and so had filed his case with the sole intention of harassing Vargas. Devaney cited a number of reasons, but the primary one was that Poppell should be considered a public figure and as such would not meet the much higher standards needed for a public figure to prove he was defamed. (Devaney maintained throughout that Vargas's statement was not necessarily false.) If Poppell were permitted to take his suit to trial, Devaney added, it could have a chilling effect on local officials' ability to speak out on public controversies.
On September 19, Judge Joseph responded with a preliminary written ruling denying Devaney's motion. "Plaintiff established a probability of success on his claim," the judge wrote. Moreover, the questions of the truthfulness of Vargas's statement and Poppell's status as a public figure were strong enough to warrant going ahead with a trial, he declared.
At the request of Devaney and Dan Lawton, a private attorney who is co-counsel for Vargas, Joseph heard them plead their case in person on September 26.
After repeating the arguments that Poppell was a public figure and that Vargas had good cause to make the statement he did, Lawton warned that a ruling against Vargas would "muzzle" public officials, according to a transcript of the proceedings.
"This lawsuit is being watched closely at city hall," he said. "There is good reason for that. Who wants to be dragged through the expense and stress and sleepless nights?... Mr. Vargas has to speak out to do his job. He does it harshly sometimes. He does it intemperately sometimes. He did it harshly and probably intemperately in this case." But as a public official speaking about a public figure, Lawton concluded, Vargas's comments weren't defamatory.
"[T]his notion that somehow Mr. Vargas or his colleagues will be silenced when held to slander laws...is just a sad argument," Poppell's attorney Mike Marrinan retorted when his turn came to speak. "Even Mr. Vargas in his declaration recognizes -- as he should, he is a lawyer -- that there are limits on what he can say. Everybody knows that you cannot accuse somebody of a crime when it's false and you know it."
Joseph honed in on the question of Vargas's role as an elected official in his closing comments before reaffirming his ruling in Poppell's favor. "The argument that draws from me the strongest reaction is the argument about how we are somehow shutting down public officials by allowing this lawsuit to go to trial," he said. "And I am going to editorialize, although it probably is questionable whether I should.
"What is the percentage of people voting these days? Why don't our kids vote? Why do they feel that everyone elected to office is questionable...don't trust them? You cannot listen to what public officials say and accept it as truth....
"It would seem to me that government officials would want to be very careful in the way they speak, because...they owe it to themselves and the people who they serve with to speak honestly, correctly, with force where necessary...but not to slander individuals. They don't need that. They have the power of public officials."
Joseph went on to mention the campaign fundraising investigations on Capitol Hill and how people aren't surprised at the seeming corruption. He ended by getting "off my soapbox."