In a significant expansion of a libel lawsuit, Key Biscayne’s leading charity is demanding emails between an advertiser and former Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay and several others.
The records are part of a sweeping discovery request filed by the Key Biscayne Community Foundation against Tony Campaigne, whose “Pepe the Parrot ” paid columns took aim at the charity and longtime Police Chief Charles Press last year.
The Foundation is suing island resident Campaigne for defamation, saying two of the ads and a July letter sent to the Village Council contained false statements it contends did damage to the charity’s fundraising efforts and threatened its tax-exempt status. The Foundation has not made a specific dollar demand.
Campaigne says the Foundation is trying to silence its critics for exercising their First Amendment rights and has filed a motion to dismiss the case.
Reached Monday, Peña Lindsay said she had no knowledge of the document request and was surprised to learn her name was listed. “For the sake of the Village, I’m not engaging in this craziness,” she said. She declined to comment on whether she had supplied information to Campaigne.
Campaigne’s attorney, David Winker, said the charity’s demand for documents was “ridiculous” and will ask the court to limit it and strip portions of the Foundation’s lawsuit he says are outside the issue of whether the statements his client made were defamatory.
“The Foundation thinks there is some grand conspiracy, and there’s not. This is just individual residents expressing concern about good government,” Winker said.
However, Winker declined to say where his client got his information about the unattributed claims in his ads, which center on a false statement that tax dollars were used to pay for a June 2021 retirement party for Press. The Village emailed invitations to the event, which the Foundation said it paid for from privately donated funds. Village Chief Financial Officer Benjamin Nussbaum confirmed that no Village funds were used for the event.
In addition, the Foundation is asking for a default judgment, which can take place when one party does not meet legal deadlines. A hearing is set for Jan. 26 before Circuit Court Judge Gina Beovides.
In addition to Peña Lindsay, the Foundation is seeking communications between Campaigne and Council Member Ignacio Segurola, former Council Member Betty Sime Conroy, and unsuccessful 2020 candidates Jennifer Allegra and Louisa Conway, as well as Gustavo Tellez, all of whom have been critical of the Foundation in the past. Tellez, a former condominium leader, challenged a $100 million environmental resiliency bond approved by island voters. (A circuit court judge dismissed the challenge last year, but Tellez, who is represented by Winker, has appealed).
The filing also asks Campaigne to turn over “documents and communications’ ‘ with Justo Rey, the publisher of the Islander News, which ran Campaigne’s paid commentaries. Neither the newspaper nor Rey are named in the suit, and Rey declined comment.
Defamation lawsuits brought by public figures generally must meet a higher legal standard known as “actual malice,” which courts have interpreted to mean a reckless disregard for the facts. In its complaint, the Foundation said that “Campaigne was warned before and after publication that his statements were false” and published anyway.
In a revised complaint filed in November, the Foundation alleged that Campaigne has a history of false statements. It attached a letter from the Reagan administration in 1983, in which White House Counsel Fred Fielding demanded Campaigne immediately cease using Reagan’s name in a solicitation about the Statue of Liberty.
Asked about the relevance of the 38-year-old letter, Foundation attorney Alan Fein responded with a written statement, saying “allegations of motive and purpose are always relevant to a defamation claim.”
Winker called some of the revised portions of the Foundation’s complaint “superfluous” and irrelevant to statements his client made about the Foundation and said he would move to strike them.
Messages left for Allegra, Conroy and Segurola were not returned. Conway declined to comment.
The Foundation no longer performs services on a contract basis for the Village, severing its relationship last year after saying it was the victim of a “smear campaign.”
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.