MANHATTAN (CN) – Bloomberg Businessweek wrongly accused an Irish Traveler of belonging to a criminal network of rhinoceros horn traffickers, he claims in a $23 million lawsuit.
Richard Kerry O’Brien filed the complaint Monday in New York County Supreme Court against Bloomberg, reporter Adam Higginbotham and senior executive editor Josh Tyrangiel.
O’Brien says that trio is responsible for a Jan. 2, 2014 article in Bloomberg Businessweek titled, “The Irish Clan Behind Europe’s Rhino-Horn Theft Epidemic,” which allegedly “stitches a narrative that falsely portrays plaintiff as a criminal mastermind involved in rhino horn trafficking and money laundering.”
The article describes how a raid of O’Brien’s home netted rhino horns stolen from the National Museum of Ireland, said to be involved with the Rathkeale Rovers, who “operate within the extended families of the Irish Traveller network, a tangle of relatives who work together in all enterprises, both legal and illegal,” according to the complaint.
O’Brien, a resident of Rathkeale in County Limerick, says he was falsely named as a member “of a nefarious criminal network that traffics rhino horns and other contraband on a global scale.”
The complaint describes O’Brien as “a businessman … who deals internationally in furniture, antiques … and other items, which he generally imports from China.”
Though O’Brien is a member of the Traveler community, he says the article defamed him as “the ‘King of Travellers’ and a ‘clan leader’ of the Rathkeale Rovers.”
In announcing rhinoceros-horn charges in the United States, the Justice Department cited Europol in saying that the Rathkeale Rovers, also known as Travelers, are a nomadic, tight-knit extended family group that has been involved in an epidemic of raids on museums in Europe involving the theft of rhinoceros horns.
O’Brien describes the Traveller Community as “an itinerant group that has historically been subject to pervasive discrimination in Irish society.”
He denies that is a “part of the Rathkeale Rovers and has never held himself out as the ‘King or leader of any such group or ‘clan.'”
As quoted in the complaint, the Bloomberg article says “fellow Rathkeale clan leader Michael ‘Levan’ Slattery, is renowned as a world-class expert in antiques.”
O’Brien says the article went on to sensationalize the September 2013 raid of his caravan by British and Irish police, through its Operation Oakleaf program, reporting that O’Brien was found “slumped on a couch in his underwear.”
The article uses “sentence structuring and phrases designed to convey the false and defamatory implication that four rhino horns were recovered from the plaintiff,” the complaint states.
In addition to challenging the claim that he associates with “fellow clan leader[s],” O’Brien says it was a different Richard O’Brien who was found with four fake rhino horns.
“The British police conducted a broad sweep during the raid that ensnared innocent people like plaintiff in the process,” the complaint states.
O’Brien says police released him after he was arrested, and that he has never been charged with any crime. In fact, he says, the Durham Constabulary in the UK canceled his bail appearance in November 2013.
As for the allegedly stolen Chinese artwork, O’Brien says the items seized from his home were returned to him “without any explanation.”
“The fact is that plaintiff has no knowledge of, or involvement in, this matter,” the complaint states. “Plaintiff is a law abiding person who has no criminal record.”
O’Brien also challenges the implication that he is “laundering the proceeds of foreign criminal activity through the Rathkeale real estate market,” and is connected to the theft of rare Chinese artifacts from the Ming and Qing dynasties stolen from two different museums in Britain in 2010.
He takes issue as well with a statement in the article that says the Rovers spent the last 20 years “systematically buying up Rathkeale, often arriving with suitcases full of cash and offering homeowners two or three times market value.”
On the contrary, “plaintiff has always conducted his real estate transactions in a legally compliant manner and utilized the services of the same law firm for the past twenty years,” the complaint states.
O’Brien included a letter from the law firm of Charles J. O’Connor & Co. in Cork, Ireland, as an exhibit in the lawsuit to confirm that.
O’Brien says Bloomberg failed to follow proper journalist standards.
“They presented a one-sided picture framing plaintiff as a criminal, while glossing over facts that undermined this portrayal – facts like plaintiff having no criminal record, or not being charged in connection with any rhino horn trafficking or money laundering, or not having any stolen artwork at his residence,” the complaint states.
Bloomberg’s “preconceived mindset” of Travelers “blinded them to the basic tenets of journalistic accuracy and editorial oversight,” according to the complaint.
O’Brien says he’s lost business as a result of the allegedly defamatory article, and that others have told him “repeatedly” that the article was why they would unlikely do business with him.
Bloomberg allegedly never apologized or retracted the article.
“Plaintiff is a hard-working businessman who is sufficiently strong-willed to withstand the prejudice and negative stereotyping that he is often subjected to because of the perception that he is a Traveller,” the complaint states. “Yet, the impact of this article on his mental, emotional and physical well-being was overwhelming and intolerable.”
Since men earn the title “King of Travellers” via a “brutal and bloody bare-knuckle fight,” Travelers now confront O’Brien because they think he “usurped this title without having earned it in a fight,” according to the complaint.
O’Brien says he now lives in a “constant state of fear.”
Bloomberg’s writer and editor “used phrasing, sequencing and sentence structuring in an intentional, calculated and concerted design to convey the defamatory meanings,” according to the complaint.
O’Brien wants at least $23 million for defamation, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He is represented by Faisal Moghul. The United Global Law Group attorney did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.
As for Bloomberg, “we stand by our reporting,” a spokesperson said in an email.
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