Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn’s libel lawsuit against the Los Angeles Sentinel for a column on his role in this year’s Wal-Mart vote has backfired, resulting in a court order that Dorn pay the newspaper’s legal fees.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Andria Richey rejected Dorn’s complaint against the Sentinel and columnist Larry Aubry. In a September 22 ruling, Richey said the Inglewood mayor was not defamed by a column that claimed Dorn “reportedly” took $40,000 from Wal-Mart.
“All political officers,” Richey wrote, “receive money from those who support their campaigns, and the mere receipt of money — even $40,000 — does not somehow become an accusation of a crime.”
Aubry’s column appeared in the Sentinel several days before Inglewood residents rejected Wal-Mart’s April proposal to bypass land-use and procedural laws in order to smooth the way for a Supercenter near the Forum. The other four members of the Inglewood City Council opposed the project. Dorn declared himself neutral.
In his column, Aubry questioned the mayor’s neutrality and said Dorn had “reportedly accepted at least $40,000 from Wal-Mart.” In fact, Dorn accepted only a $2,000 contribution from the project’s developer, and nothing from Wal-Mart directly. He argued in court papers that Aubry had defamed him by alleging that he took a campaign contribution or a bribe from the Arkansas-based discount giant.
Wal-Mart has become a hot-button political issue in Southern California as the company rolls out plans to build 40 Supercenters. Opponents claim Wal-Mart’s employment practices reduce wage and benefit standards and that its pricing drives out smaller businesses. Wal-Mart and its supporters argue that the store gives workers badly needed jobs and lowers the cost of living for its shoppers.
The Inglewood vote has been seen as an important turning point in the fight against the corporation.
Richey said that even though Aubry erred, he was close enough, since “it is conceded that money from Wal-Mart’s ‘side’ or a developer which certainly reasonably could be found to be aligned with the Wal-Mart position on this issue was, in fact, received by the plaintiff.”
The size of the legal-fee award has not yet been set. Fees are owed, Richey ruled, under a state law governing lawsuits that tend to discourage public participation in the political process and the free marketplace of ideas.
Aubry, who frequently criticizes Dorn in his column, is the father of L.A. Weekly staff writer Erin Aubry Kaplan.