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US congressman uses meeting with Muscat as alibi in CNN case

Judge concerned over Devin Nunes’ ‘forum shopping’ for filing lawsuit in State with ‘no logical connection’ to events in the case.

Republican US congressman Devin Nunes and former Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat
Republican US congressman Devin Nunes and former Prime Minister of Malta Joseph Muscat - Photo: Washington Explained/Nunes' lawsuit

Republican US congressman Devin Nunes is using a 2018 meeting with former prime minister Joseph Muscat as part of his evidence dossier in a $435 million lawsuit he filed against news channel CNN.

The CNN report at the centre of the case, aired in November 2019, reported that in December 2018, while he was serving as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Nunes met with Ukrainian former prosecutor-general Victor Shokin to discuss dirt on American politician Joe Biden.

Nunes filed the multi-million dollar lawsuit against the news channel arguing the report was a “demonstrably false hit piece”. But he drew criticism from a Judge last Friday, for ‘forum shopping’ in different States to achieve maximum damage through the lawsuit.

The California congressman, who was also part of US President Donald Trump’s transitional team, has become infamous for the number of vexatious lawsuits he has filed, amounting to some seven cases in a year.

In the article, CNN cited congressional travel records showing that the congressman and a few of his aides travelled to Europe between 30 November and 3 December 2018, meeting Shokin in that period.

Although the multi-million dollar lawsuit shows that Nunes did travel between those dates, it says that he was in Libya and Malta during that timeframe, the Washington Examiner said in December.

Nunes travelled to Libya to “discuss security issues with General Khalifa Haftar,” and then Malta, where Nunes “met with US and Maltese officials, including Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, and participated in a repatriation ceremony for the remains of an American World War II soldier missing in action,” the report said, quoting the lawsuit.

A picture of a grinning Nunes and Muscat standing inside Castille forms part of the evidence to that statement as part of Nunes’ suit.

CNN is standing by its report.

Judge warns lawyers about ‘forum shopping’

On Friday, a judge in Virginia, where the lawsuit was filed by Nunes, granted CNN’s request to transfer the defamation suit to the Southern District of New York, finding there was “no logical connection” between the case and Richmond, Virginia, where it was filed.

Judge Robert Payne raised “significant concerns” over forum shopping, saying he had warned Nunes’ lawyer “on multiple occasions” that the court “cannot stand as a willing repository for cases that have no real nexus to this district,” according to US law website.

In February, The Shift wrote about the numerous lawsuits that Nunes has filed in a State other than the one he represents. The reason behind it all: California has one of the country’s strongest legislation against lawsuits aimed at silencing critics on topics of public concern.

Nunes’ tactic is part of a growing movement of corporations, businesses and individuals who use SLAPP as a way of silencing the media through long drawn out suits that can cripple a media organisation.

The high number of cases filed by Nunes has prompted questions about the source of his funding, which led to a watchdog group writing to the Congressional Ethics Office, asking for an investigation.

This trend is not only limited to the US. In Europe – and in Malta – SLAPP suits have come under increasing scrutiny following the growth in the number of cases filed and requested financial damages.

Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, assassinated in Malta in October 2017, had over 40 pending libel cases before she was killed in 2017 that were filed by companies, government officials and individuals, and described by her son Matthew as a “never-ending type of torture”.

Owner of the now-defunct Pilatus Bank, Ali Sadr Hasheminejad, who was found guilty by an American jury in March for breaching US sanctions against Iran, had started libel proceedings against Caruana Galizia “to protect his reputation” in Arizona demanding compensation of US$40 million.

Using similar threats against the independent mainstream media, Ali Sadr succeeded in altering the record, with news stories on allegations being investigated removed.

Last week, over 25 press freedom organisations wrote to the European Commission proposing reforms to the EU defamation law against “vexatious litigation,” based on academic research by academic Justin Borg-Barthet, an expert in European law based at Aberdeen University.

“The weaponisation of the law by powerful economic actors has for too long resulted in the suppression of scrutiny and the consequent weakening of the rule of law in the European Union,” the international organisations said.

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