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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Reporter Will Face Billionaire’s Libel Claim

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (CN) - Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot will have his day in court after an Idaho judge refused to dismiss a case in which he says former Post Register reporter Peter Zuckerman defamed him on national television.

VanderSloot and his company Melaleuca initially sued Mother Jones magazine in 2013 for a February 2012 article he says wrongfully claimed he "outed" and "bashed" Zuckerman for being gay after the reporter wrote "Scouts Honor," a 2005 series involving the Mormon church, the Boy Scouts and accusations of pedophilia.

VanderSloot, a Mormon, took out a series of ads in the Post Register's community page in response to Zuckerman's series.

The Mother Jones article "Pyramid-Like Company Ponies up $1 Million for Mitt Romney," which focused on VanderSloot's campaign contribution to fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, apparently broke open old wounds by mentioning the "Scouts Honor" articles and VanderSloot's subsequent ad campaign in the Post Register.

VanderSloot sued Mother Jones and then sued Zuckerman after the reporter's May 2012 appearance on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," where he said VanderSloot's ads outed him as gay.

VanderSloot intended to add Zuckerman as a co-defendant in the Mother Jones lawsuit, but ultimately filed a separate lawsuit against him.

Williamson partially granted VanderSloot's motion for summary judgment last week and denied a similar motion by Zuckerman.

Williamson awarded Mother Jones and two of its employees summary judgment earlier this month, finding that the comments made in the February 2012 article and a tweet about VanderSloot, both of which mentioned VanderSloot's ties with Zuckerman, were "non-actionable truth" or "substantial truth."

She did not hold Zuckerman's comments in the same regard.

Zuckerman denied that his statements amounted to malice, that most of his comments were "substantially" true and that VanderSloot has not suffered any financial damages from them.

Williamson said, however, that his comments constituted libel, or were libelous per se.

"Zuckerman portrays himself as a victim of the community page ad and blames VanderSloot for his subsequent negative experiences," she wrote. "The court presumes as a matter of law that these statements (about the negative experiences) 'disgrace and degrade' and hold VanderSloot 'up to public hatred, contempt or ridicule' and 'reflect on VanderSloot's 'integrity, character and his good name in the community.' The court finds the alleged libel is evident on its face."

She added that at issue are the exact comments made on Maddow's show.

"Both sides offer evidence that confirms and contradicts Zuckerman's statements to Maddow," Williamson said. "Thus, an issue of fact as to whether Zuckerman's personal and professional life was tremendously impacted by VanderSloot's ads is for presentation to a jury."

Attempts to contact VanderSloot's attorney Tom Clare were unsuccessful.

He told the Post Register in 2014 that VanderSloot did not want to sue Mother Jones or Zuckerman, but felt he had no choice.

"We regret that we have been forced to sue Peter Zuckerman, but his actions and public statements have made a lawsuit necessary in order to correct the public record," Clare said in an emailed statement. "Mr. Zuckerman has had several opportunities to correct his false statements about my clients but, unfortunately, instead of undoing the damage and the mistaken impressions his statements have caused, he has only repeated and doubled-down on them, including on national television.

"Had Mother Jones or Peter Zuckerman been willing to correct the public record on their own, we would not have been forced to pursue this litigation to vindicate (VanderSloot's and Melaleuca's) reputations.

"We certainly do not wish Mr. Zuckerman any harm. We only want him to be truthful and correct the public record. Given the damage that Mr. Zuckerman has done, that's not too much to ask."

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