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Mayor Sues 3 City Council Critics for Libel : Lawsuits: Defendants say it is an attempt to divert attention from a proposed recall effort and referendum campaign on the controversial General Plan.

September 05, 1993|ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DIAMOND BAR — Mayor Gary G. Miller has sued three Diamond Bar residents--all City Council critics--alleging that they conspired to destroy his reputation by distributing flyers and making statements that falsely accuse him of extortion, bribery and other crimes.

The two libel lawsuits, filed in Pomona Superior Court in the last two weeks, seek millions of dollars in damages for what Miller, a developer, asserts has been harm to his reputation as a public official and businessman. The suits also claim that the reputation of his wife, Cathleen, has been tarnished.

All three residents say the lawsuits are an attempt to stifle criticism of the mayor and to deflect attention away from a campaign to force a referendum on the city's General Plan and a planned recall drive targeting Miller and Mayor Pro Tem Phyllis Papen.

The complaint Miller filed Tuesday names Diamond Bar Citizens to Protect Country Living and William Gross, a Diamond Bar mortgage broker who says he resigned as chairman of the citizens group in July and now spearheads the effort to recall Miller and Papen. That suit asks for more than $10 million in damages.

"I'm not denying some of the things he (has alleged), but I deny they constitute invasion of privacy and libel," said Gross, who has vowed to file a countersuit against Miller alleging that the mayor has made slanderous statements that hurt his business.

The other suit, which Miller filed Aug. 25, names Max Maxwell, a self-employed marketing specialist and a longtime council critic who heads the citizens group, and Norman Beach-Courchesne, president of the Pathfinder Homeowners Assn. in Diamond Bar. That lawsuit asks more than $5 million in damages.

"I think he's full of hot air," Maxwell said. He said the citizens group consists of him and a treasurer, whom he declined to name.

Maxwell has led a petition drive to force a referendum on the city's year-old General Plan, which was recently revised but not to the satisfaction of his group nor some members of the homeowners association.

Critics say the General Plan still allows too much development in the city without taking adequate steps to alleviate traffic and preserve hillsides. Members of the City Council defend the revised plan, saying it does all that is economically practical and legally possible to limit development and preserve open space without infringing on private property rights.

Two weeks ago referendum supporters handed the city clerk more than 400 petitions containing more than 4,000 signatures. They need fewer than 3,000 valid signatures. But the petitions were rejected by the clerk, who said the state Election Code requires a copy of the General Plan to be attached to each petition. A judge is scheduled to rule on the citizens' appeal Sept. 14.

Maxwell said his group's flyers, most of which were handed out last month during the petition drive, contain accurate information about Miller and do not state that he has committed or been charged with any crime. One flyer published by Diamond Bar Citizens to Protect Country Living is referred to in both of Miller's lawsuits. Miller alleges that the flyer falsely accuses him of bribery and extortion, among other things.

It contains the headline "Corruption in Diamond Bar City Government" and refers to a lawsuit against the city, Miller and Papen that was filed recently by a development group. The flyer states that Miller and Papen were accused of extortion in an earlier lawsuit filed against them and the city by a development group called Diamond Bar Associates. However, the lawsuit does not contain the word "extortion," which is a criminal charge.

Diamond Bar Associates alleges in the suit that Miller and Papen asked it for favors before voting down--along with the rest of the council--the development group's proposed 57-home subdivision in November. Miller and Papen deny asking for favors. They and other council members say they voted against the development because the developer had failed to submit soil studies showing that slopes on the property would support the large luxury homes that were planned.

Miller and his attorneys say the flyer referring to the development group's lawsuit falsely leads the average reader to believe he has been charged with a crime.

"We feel a line has been crossed. The inference made from (the flyers) is there has been a conviction against Miller of extortion and bribery. That (Diamond Bar Associates) lawsuit does not charge either," said Daniel Widish, the attorney representing Miller in the case against Gross. "I think they are taking advantage of a lay person's understanding of the law."

Maxwell acknowledged that his citizens group printed the flyer. Gross said he had nothing to do with it. Beach-Courchesne, who asserts that Miller's suit is "basically just harassment," said he helped pass out copies of it while he was participating recently in the petition drive for the referendum on the General Plan.

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