MANHATTAN (CN) - A Greek shipping magnate can pursue claims that he was defamed in an anti-Iranian group's "name and shame" program, a federal judge ruled.
Victor Restis, 46, sued the Manhattan-based nonprofit United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) after the group targeted him last year in a series of press campaigns depicting him as a sanction-buster.
Restis contends that UANI cost him hundreds of millions of dollars in business, damaged his professional reputation, and personally insulted him as an enabler of "the most dire enemy of Israel and the Jewish people." The latter allegation allegedly upset Restis in particular since his grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust.
What started out as a private lawsuit between the Greek magnate and a private nonprofit took on much larger proportions after the U.S. government claimed last month that discovery in the case could spill state secrets.
Although the federal government is still trying to dismiss the case, Restis vaulted his first litigation hurdle last week with U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos finding that he alleged a plausible defamation claim.
The 39-page opinion has colorful details about the press campaign against Restis.
In a public letter dated May 2013, the group accused Restis of engaging in a "significant and potentially lucrative illicit business relationship" with Greek businessman Dimitris Cambis to illegally export Iranian oil, the opinion states.
The United States later sanctioned Cambis, who is not a party to this lawsuit, for conspiring with the Iranian regime and Iran's Ministry of Petroleum.
UANI forwarded its letter to 18 other people, including "senior members of Congress, representatives of the Obama administration, and members of the Greek government," according to the opinion.
Within one day, the group issued four separate press releases trumpeting the allegations, and two of them splashed large pictures of Holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
UANI's social media "Call to Action" provoked its readers to vent their anger at Restis in a series of Facebook comments calling him an "animal," a "crook," a "piece of crap," a "self satisfied smug bastard without any scruples," an "evil, greasy, greedy bastard," and stronger epithets.
In July 2013, the group allegedly continued to hint at the "dark cloud" hanging over Restis' business dealings and published another picture of the magnate superimposed on an Iranian oil tanker.
Restis said he received a violent threat after its publication.
Greek authorities arrested Restis on money-laundering charges later that month. The magnate's lawyers say those still-pending charges keep Restis from leaving Greece for Manhattan depositions in his civil case.
In February this year, UANI said it found that a cargo ship from Enterprises Shipping and Trading S.A., one of Restis' companies, made multiple ports of call to Iran.
Restis contends that the ships had been delivering authorized humanitarian food aid, through major U.S. companies.
UANI's report nevertheless allegedly caused the underwriters for Restis' planned stock offering for Golden Energy, the tanker company he owned in part, to "abruptly" withdraw.
Golden Energy would have raised more than $1 billion, with hundreds of millions of dollars lining Restis' pockets, he claims.
The government of Cyprus also terminated Restis' application for underwater-mining rights for natural gas that would have been worth $100 million per year for more than 35 years, the opinion states.
UANI made several arguments to throw out the defamation claims, including calling its allegations "substantially true" and "non-actionable opinions."
Judge Ramos countered last week, however, that such opinions are "still actionable if either the facts on which they rely are false or if the statements mischaracterized the facts."
Restis insists that the group's evidence relied upon fraudulent documents, and Ramos described UANI's efforts as a "sophisticated and coordinated international campaign in letters, press releases, Facebook posts, and Tweets drafted by communications professionals and former diplomats."
UANI's directors "presumably meant what they said and intended their words to be understood in accordance with their plain meaning," the ruling states.
Nor could UANI protect itself through claims of protected advocacy, the judge added.
"The mere fact that defendants engage in advocacy does not give them blanket immunity to make false accusations," Ramos wrote.
The ruling dismisses other allegations of tortious interference and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Restis with Chadbourne & Parke, cheered the decision.
"Victor Restis and his company were intentionally defamed by UANI's fraudulent 'name and shame' campaign and with this ruling, the court has rejected UANI's attempts to prevent Mr. Restis from having his day in court," Lowell said in a statement. "Mr. Restis will continue to fight UANI's other attempts to avoid answering for their conduct."
The government's motion to dismiss the lawsuit on national-security grounds is still pending.
UANI's attorney Lee Wolosky, a partner at the Manhattan office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, predicted that the remaining defamation count will fail as well.
"Almost all of Mr. Restis' claims were dismissed last week," Wolosky said in an email. "We expect the final claim to be dismissed in due course."
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