Allegations of defamation are on the rise in Key Biscayne, with a round of fresh claims and counterclaims. Some involve the Islander News weekly newspaper and questions of First Amendment rights. The legal activity is mounting as the Village biennial election cycle gets into full gear later this year.
In the latest action, a court hearing set for today by former Village Council candidate Jennifer Allegra was abruptly canceled by her attorney, a court official said. Allegra is demanding information from the newspaper, claiming that a letter to the editor from “Paul Nichols” defamed her. The newspaper is pushing back on the demand, saying Allegra’s claim is barred by the First Amendment, according to court papers. Allegra’s “bill of discovery” is seeking information about Nichols she says she was unable to locate.
Emails sent to Allegra and her attorney, Robert O’Donnell, were not responded to.
In another case involving the Islander News, a new defamation counterclaim is being brought by Tony Campaigne, a former consultant, against the Key Biscayne Community Foundation. The action is a response to the defamation lawsuit the charity filed last year over his “Pepe’s Perch” ads. The columns took aim at the Foundation and the Key Biscayne police department.
In the counterclaim, Campaigne says the situation is the reverse: it is the Foundation that has harmed his reputation — and interfered with his business relationship with the newspaper, a claim known as “tortious interference.”
Counterclaims are common in civil litigation, and Campaigne’s allegation of defamation does not identify any specific statement as being defamatory, although such an element is a legal requirement. Attorney David Winker refused to identify any specific defamatory words used by the Foundation, saying only that it would be provided “in due course.”
As to the Islander News, Winker said Campaigne had an agreement to publish columns and that the Foundation is responsible for the newspaper’s decision to stop running them.
“The Islander was told to ‘stop it,’” Winker said. No contract was attached to the court pleading and Winker did not identify any damages. “We understand the pressure the Islander was put under by the Foundation. We feel like the Islander is a victim, too,” Winker said.
Winker has occasionally published columns of his own in the paper.
Justo Rey, the publisher, did not respond to a request for comment. Alan Fein, an attorney for the Foundation, also declined comment.
Libel and defamation cases are relatively uncommon and damages can be hard to prove. In Miami-Dade County, there were 70 defamation cases filed last year, compared to 27,622 case filings overall, according to court officials.
Connecting the Dots
Although the Allegra information demand and the Foundation and Campaigne defamation claims are separate legal matters, they do involve an overlapping cast of characters and issues that have stirred deep passions in the tightly-knit island community. And they come as the Village is about to plunge into political season, where depositions and discovery demands involving prominent community figures could fuel political rancor. Three council seats and the mayor’s office are up for grabs in 2022. And although Key Biscayne’s elections are officially non-partisan, that doesn’t mean there aren’t unofficial parties or political alliances: groups of individuals with overlapping interests — and enemies.
The July 15 letter to the editor from “Paul Nichols” that Allegra claims is defamatory also names Campaigne — as well as former Council candidate Louisa Conway and current Council Member Ignacio Segurola, all of whom have been critical of the charity. Segurola’s seat is among those up for election this fall.
Segurola has made many document requests of the Foundation’s work as a Village contractor. He has publicly questioned whether the Village should have outsourced some functions to the group, although that is common practice in other municipal governments. In 2019, dozens of residents packed the Council Chambers in support of the charity’s work. But the cease-fire proved to be short-lived.
Last year, the Foundation severed its ties with the Village, resulting in the government having to add staff to take up some of the functions done by the nonprofit. The charity said at the time it was the victim of a “smear campaign.”
The Foundation’s leadership reads like a Who’s Who of veteran Village leaders and influencers. Its chair, Gary Gross, is a former council member, as is Dr. Jorge Mendia. Fein, the attorney representing the Foundation in its libel suit, is also a former Village Council member and is a partner at the prominent Stearns Weaver firm, led by one of the Village’s founding members, Gene Stearns.
In opposition are Allegra and Conway, who were part of a group of 2020 candidates known informally as “The Slate,” that united in distrust of what they said were “insiders,” and a $100 million resiliency bond issue they erroneously claimed was a “blank check.” Winker is still trying to oppose the bond: he represents Gustavo Tellez, another Foundation critic named in the Nichols letter. The bond challenge was dismissed by a lower court but is on appeal.
Joining the bond opposition were Segurola and Council Member Luis Lauredo, whose seat is also up for election this year. Segurola and Conway were both former leaders of the Key Biscayne Condominium Presidents’ Council, another nonprofit whose leadership has sometimes been vocal in various Village issues. Its current president, former lobbyist Fausto Gomez, has sought to distance the group from prior controversies and is said by several to be weighing a bid to run for Key Biscayne mayor in the fall. Gomez, who once worked with Lauredo, demurred when asked if he was running for mayor.
“You’ll be the first to know,” he said.
NOTE: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Winker had previously represented Allegra.