Paonia activist seeks dismissal of libel suit

An attorney for a Paonia environmental activist has asked that a court dismiss a libel lawsuit brought by an energy company, contending that comments the activist made are substantially true and thus protected by the First Amendment.

Steven Zansberg, a Denver attorney who works in media-related law, filed the motion Monday in district court in Delta County. His client, Pete Kolbenschlag, said he believes the company bringing the suit, SG Interests, has 21 days to respond.

SG Interests sued Kolbenschlag in February over comments he made on the Glenwood Springs Post Independent newspaper website regarding a Nov. 28 article on SGI’s plans — since carried out — to sue the federal government over the cancellation of 18 of its leases in the Thompson Divide area. The company alleges collusion between the Obama administration and environmentalists leading to the cancellation, and Kolbenschlag commented, “let us recall that it, SGI, was actually fined for colluding … to rig bid prices and rip off American taxpayers.”

In 2013, SGI and Gunnison Energy agreed to pay a combined amount of more than $1 million in a settlement with the federal government after the Justice Department said they colluded in illegal bidding for federal oil and gas leases, to the detriment of taxpayers.

The companies agreed to have only SGI bid on the leases, and then assign a half interest in them to Gunnison Energy, an action Gunnison Energy insisted at the time was legal. Neither company admitted wrongdoing in settling the case.

Zansberg says in the motion to dismiss the case that he anticipates SGI will argue it wasn’t fined, as Kolbenschlag stated, but merely agreed to pay damages in a settlement. Zansberg argues the distinction between being fined and agreeing to pay a fine is immaterial “in the mind of the average reader” for purposes of defamation law.

“So too, the difference between a monetary payment being labeled a ‘fine’ and ‘money damages,’ is immaterial for purposes of a defamation action; all such court-ordered payments into the U.S. Treasury to resolve a legal claim carry the same ‘sting,’ i.e., money was paid to make a claim go away,” the motion says.

Zansberg said in the motion that trying to make a distinction between a fine and money damages is a “hyper-technical parsing of words” and “nitpicking.” He also noted that numerous media outlets and even some law firms referred to the settlement payout as a fine in accounts about the case, and he said none of those references are actionable under libel law because technical errors in legal terminology are of no legal consequence.

SGI and its attorney in the libel case have declined to comment on it.

Zansberg also argues that SGI has failed to meet its obligation to show any “actual malice” by Kolbenschlag, which would mean he knew his statement was false or had serious doubts as to its truth.

The motion says, “This lawsuit is a classic, textbook example of a “SLAPP” action – the Plaintiff, a large Texas-based oil company, pleads a single libel claim against an outspoken critic of that company, in a transparent attempt to silence him, and other concerned citizens.”

SLAPP is short for strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Kolbenschlag contends SGI is using the suit to silence North Fork Valley residents who oppose oil and gas development there.

“This is our home and we don’t want to be pushed around,” he says in a video on a http://www.generosity.com fundraising page he has established.

Nearly 300 people have contributed more than $20,000 to fund his legal defense and, he says, to spread the word about such efforts to silence people and work to resist them.



COMMENTS

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Truth is a solid defense against libel. Go, Pete.

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