A libel suit against Carson council members Sylvia Muise, Tom Mills and council candidates Aaron Carter and Leon Cornell gained impetus Thursday when a Superior Court ruled a 1986 attack against then-council candidate Michael Mitoma may have been made with malice.
The term malice, when used in libel law, refers to an accusation made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
A UCLA law professor who teaches libel law said that Mitoma had overcome a significant hurdle with the ruling.
A trial date has not been set.
Mitoma--who was defeated in 1986 when Muise and Mills won four-year terms--was elected a year later in a special election.
And now he and his council allies--Mayor Kay Calas and Vera Robles DeWitt--are running for three council seats against Carter, Cornell and four others.
Mitoma denied that he was pressing the lawsuit as a tactic in the April 12 election.
"I'm not doing it for reelection," he said. "I'm doing it to clean up Sylvia and Tom's act."
The lawsuit concerns a brochure attacking Mitoma that was mailed by an organization called Carsonites Organized for Good Government on the Friday before the 1986 election.
The lawsuit, which was filed on the Monday before the 1986 election, contends that Muise and Mills paid for the brochure and directed Carter and Cornell, who were the president and treasurer of the organization, to mail it.
Mitoma, who is president of Pacific Business Bank, alleges that the brochure falsely implied that he and his bank, also a plaintiff, were involved in illegal drug activities, that he was on trial in a drug money laundering case and that he was unfit in his profession as a banker. The suit alleges the brochure misrepresents testimony he gave in federal court by putting it in a false context.
On one page of the brochure, under the title "MITOMA'S BANK INVESTIGATED IN DRUG LAUNDERING CASE," an article from the Daily Breeze was reprinted. Headlined "Money-Laundering Trial Under Way," it said that $3.5 million in drug money was laundered through an account at the Pacific Business Bank.
Below that, the following statements, which are not part of the newspaper article, appear on the brochure:
"When asked by federal attorneys at the Drug Laundering Trial why his bank had allowed such practices to go on in violation of banking laws and practices, Mitoma said:
" 'We were not aware we had to do that. We were told on examination we were remiss in that area.'
"HE WANTS TO RUN OUR CITY. HE CAN'T EVEN RUN HIS BANK!"
But the question that had been asked of Mitoma as a prosecution witness at the trial was different.
Mitoma was questioned about the bank's compliance with a federal requirement that banks report customers making cash deposits of $10,000 or more, unless the depositor is on an exempt list for which the bank sets a higher ceiling.
According to the transcript of the trial, held in U.S. District Court in 1986, the prosecutor asked Mitoma: "Did you have any ceiling amounts, and when I say ceiling amounts, I mean any certain top figure that you would limit that exempt list to?"
Mitoma replied: "We were not aware we had to do that. We were told on examination we were remiss in that area."
(Mitoma explained in an interview that the bank was remiss in dealing with the exempt list, which includes customers, such as supermarkets, who make frequent large cash deposits. Mitoma said some bank employees had been unaware that any ceiling applied to customers on the exempt list.)
It is Mitoma's contention--and the key to his lawsuit--that the question he was asked in court was deliberately rewritten to make it seem he had admitted to being involved in drug-money laundering.
And on Thursday, Superior Court Judge Kurt Lewin agreed that Mitoma's libel suit could proceed. He declined to dismiss the suit, ruling that Mitoma had alleged sufficient facts for the case to go ahead.
Many libel cases brought by public figures are thrown out of court because a public figure must overcome such a difficult standard--he or she must show that what was said about him or her was done with "actual malice."
Because of the public interest in robust debate about public figures, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public figures--such as political candidates--must prove a statement was made with knowledge that it was false, or with reckless disregard for its truth, before they can win a libel suit.
"It is extremely difficult to win those kinds of cases. Malice is hard to demonstrate," said Julian Eule, a law professor at UCLA.
"The theory they are suing under is that since they altered the question, they knew it was false," Eule said. Stuart Herman, Mitoma's attorney, said: "Libel claims involving political candidates usually do not proceed very far because the courts say it is covered by free speech. In this case, the conduct and statements of the defendants may have been so malicious and inconsistent with the truth that the free speech privilege has been washed away."
But defense attorney Patty Mortl countered: "Pleading is one thing, proving is another."
She said the brochure had not been intended to imply that Mitoma or his bank was involved in drug-money laundering.
"The political brochure addresses not drug-related activity but . . . whether someone in a management position is qualified to be in public office," she said. "At this point Mike Mitoma is saying one thing and we are saying another."