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Woman Accuses Schwarzenegger of Libel

A British TV host claims her reputation was smeared after she said he had groped her.

October 30, 2004|Gary Cohn, Robert W. Welkos and Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writers

A former British TV host who accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of fondling her breast has filed a libel action against him, alleging her reputation was smeared in the final days of last year's historic recall election.

In the legal claim, filed in London's High Court, Anna Richardson accused Schwarzenegger and two other people connected with his campaign of protecting the candidate's "ruthless political ambition" by lying about an alleged groping incident in 2000.

In court papers, Richardson contends that the governor's campaign operatives falsely described her as sexually provocative, saying she forced herself on Schwarzenegger after he appeared on her celebrity-driven show. That version of the encounter, provided by a Hollywood publicist long associated with the actor, appeared in a Los Angeles Times story published five days before last year's gubernatorial recall election. Richardson was one of six women quoted in the story as saying Schwarzenegger had touched their bodies without consent.

The complaint, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed in May but remained confidential under British law because the governor had not been formally served with court papers. That occurred recently.

On Friday, a judge in London denied a motion by one of the governor's co-defendants to block the case from going forward. Former campaign spokesman Sean Walsh unsuccessfully argued that the British court did not have jurisdiction. The judge's ruling paved the way for a possible trial in London next year and raised the possibility that the governor could be forced to testify about his allegedly inappropriate treatment of women.

In addition to the governor and Walsh, the complaint names a third defendant, Sheryl Main, the Hollywood publicist whose comments in The Times triggered the legal action. She now works for the governor as a deputy communications director.

Requests for comment from Schwarzenegger and Main were referred to attorney Martin Singer. He did not return calls made to his Century City office. An attorney for Walsh, Thomas Hiltachk , said his client planned to appeal the ruling.

Richardson is the second woman to bring a libel action against Schwarzenegger since the recall. In July, a Los Angeles judge dismissed the other case, filed by former stuntwoman Rhonda Miller. She had alleged that the Schwarzenegger campaign defamed her after she publicly accused the candidate of sexual harassment.

In her suit, Miller said Schwarzenegger spokesman Walsh led reporters to believe she had a history of prostitution and drug abuse. In fact, that criminal record belonged to a woman with the same name.

The judge ruled that Miller, by holding a news conference, had become a limited public figure and was forced to show "clear and convincing" evidence that Walsh or the Schwarzenegger campaign knowingly provided false information -- a burden of proof she was unable to meet.

The most recent case, however, is likely to last longer.

In Great Britain, according to legal experts, the standard for proving libel is easier than in the U.S. Here, it's up to plaintiffs to prove that the allegedly defamatory remarks were false. There, the burden shifts to the accused, who must defend the truth of such statements.

"In a he-said, she-said case where the evidence is roughly even on both sides, it makes all the difference in the world who has the burden," libel expert Rodney Smolla of the University of Richmond law school said in an interview earlier this year.

Richardson's groping allegations against Schwarzenegger date to the December 2000 taping of an interview for her late-night British TV show about movies, "Big Screen." Schwarzenegger was promoting his film, "The 6th Day."

Immediately after the interview, Richardson said, Schwarzenegger pulled her onto his knee. "Before you go," she quoted him as saying, "I want to know if your breasts are real." Richardson said Schwarzenegger then circled her left nipple with his finger and said, "Yes, they are real."

An account of the incident appeared in the British press within a few days and was included in a March 2001 article in Premiere magazine with the headline "Arnold the Barbarian."

She reiterated the account in an interview with The Times last fall in the closing weeks of the recall battle.

When Walsh was asked by the newspaper to comment on Richardson's allegations, he arranged for publicist Main to answer questions because she was present during the interview with Schwarzenegger in a suite at London's Dorchester Hotel.

Main said in a telephone interview that Richardson, after finishing the interview, rose from her chair, cupped her right breast in her right hand and said: "What do you think of these?" Main said Richardson then sat in Schwarzenegger's lap. With that, Main said, Richardson was escorted out of the room.

Main also said during the interview -- in a remark not published at the time -- that Richardson was dressed "rather provocatively, a very low-cut top and very short skirt."

On at least that point, a videotape of the Schwarzenegger interview shows Main was wrong. Richardson was wearing a black, long-sleeve turtleneck and a black leather skirt that fell below the knee.

In her complaint, Richardson alleges that Main's quoted remarks were intended to protect Schwarzenegger "from a catalog of sexual misconduct."

Said one of her attorneys, Graham Atkins: "We look forward to proceeding swiftly to trial in order to vindicate Ms. Richardson's reputation."

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