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Libel Suit May Put Gov. on the Spot

Alleged groping victim seeks Schwarzenegger deposition about e-mail his camp sent to media.

March 22, 2004|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Less than 24 hours before last October's recall election, a petite stuntwoman named Rhonda Miller stood before a row of television cameras in Los Angeles and alleged that Arnold Schwarzenegger had twice sexually assaulted her on movie sets.

But before her charges made the evening news, the campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger had dismissed Miller's accusation and raised a claim of its own, suggesting in an e-mail that reporters should see whether Miller had a criminal record.

Now, in a libel suit that has drawn little attention since Schwarzenegger's election as governor, he faces a courtroom battle that raises new questions about his campaign's handling of sexual harassment allegations. And if Miller's attorneys have their way, Schwarzenegger will be questioned under oath about whether he played any role in releasing the e-mail.

In the suit, the 53-year-old Miller alleges that the governor and his close advisors sought to soil her reputation after she accused him of sexual harassment. That effort, she said, was highlighted by an e-mail that invited reporters to check Miller's name on an Internet site of Los Angeles Superior Court criminal records.

As reporters discovered, there were plenty of Los Angeles criminal records for women with the name Rhonda Miller, but not one with the same birth date as the Miller who had accused Schwarzenegger. Even so, supporters of the governor immediately attacked her character on radio and television talk shows.

Miller's attorneys insist that Schwarzenegger and his campaign knew she had no criminal history but raised the topic of court records with the hope they could entice reporters into investigating Miller.

Court records show that Schwarzenegger was briefed by his aides about Miller's charges shortly after she appeared at the news conference. He has said in a sworn deposition that the e-mail was "created and disseminated" by the campaign "without my knowledge or consent."

Attorneys for Schwarzenegger and the campaign have urged that the libel suit be dismissed. But before ruling on that request, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert L. Hess will hear arguments today on a motion by Miller's attorneys to depose the governor and his aides to seek proof that Miller was intentionally defamed by the campaign.

The motion is significant, both legally and politically. If Miller's attorneys are able to question the governor and others under oath, they could be asked about how the decision was made to send out the e-mail.

"It is one thing to make comments about someone's accusations, but to do this kind of thing is beyond the pale" said attorney Paul Hoffman, who is representing Miller along with attorney Gloria Allred.

"They did not just deny the allegations ... they basically called Rhonda Miller a criminal."

Charges Called Absurd

As a result, Allred and Hoffman say, Miller was ridiculed as Schwarzenegger supporters slandered her on numerous broadcasts before some of the accusers eventually retracted their comments.

But attorneys for Schwarzenegger and the campaign insist that Miller's charges are absurd.

Calling the lawsuit part of a "political witch hunt," Schwarzenegger's longtime attorney, Martin Singer, argued that Miller had no grounds for deposing the governor because he has already sworn under oath that he had no role in releasing the e-mail. And the libel suit, Singer said, was as groundless as Miller's original claim of having been accosted by Schwarzenegger.

"I have been representing Arnold Schwarzenegger for 15 years, and in all that time, no one came forward with these kinds of claims," said Singer. "So why is it that this happens the day before the election?"

Attorney Neil Shapiro, representing the campaign, said that by going public with her harassment claim, Miller had become a public figure and created a higher standard for proving she had been libeled.

"When you go public with a 12-year-old accusation, the day before an election, how can you say you are not ... a public figure," said Shapiro.

Generally, libel requires proof that a false statement has damaged the victim. If the person defamed is deemed a public figure, the plaintiff must prove the speaker knew the statement was false, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Someone who is not a public figure does not have to show that someone made a statement knowing it was false.

Court documents in the case already provide a glimpse into how Miller's accusations were handled by Schwarzenegger's camp on the eve of the election. The staff had previously been challenged by allegations that Schwarzenegger had abused more than a dozen women over a period of three decades.

In declarations filed by several campaign workers, Schwarzenegger's attorneys paint a picture of a campaign caught off guard by the allegations and earnestly attempting to find out all it can about Miller.

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