Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene sued the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald Wednesday, alleging that stories published during his recent U.S. Senate campaign robbed him of victory in the Democratic primary and defamed his reputation.
The stories — one about Greene's real estate dealings in California and another about activities on his yacht — were part of "a coordinated and agreed upon plan to assassinate Greene's character'' and made his primary campaign "unsuccessful," the suit alleges.
He is seeking $500 million in damages and has hired a high-profile Atlanta attorney who has won settlements for other public figures who have sued the media.
"Libel was committed and we are going to have our day in court,'' Greene said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "The public deserves to have fair and truthful and honest reporting. Especially reporting that goes to a candidate running for political office.''
Times editor Neil Brown said: "It is our firm opinion that the allegations in this lawsuit are preposterous.''
"We believe Jeff Greene is a sore loser and he's trying to blame the newspapers because he can't accept the verdict of the voters,'' Brown said Wednesday. "When you run for public office you can and should count on public scrutiny because voters have a right to know about the men and women who seek to represent them.
"Our coverage of Mr. Greene was fair, clear and the information was well-documented. The stories gave Mr. Greene ample space to explain his positions, and we respect that our readers are capable of making their own judgments."
The stories were written by Times reporters but also appeared in the Herald about two weeks before the primary. The two papers often share stories of statewide interest.
Before the stories ran, the suit says, most polls showed Greene had "a comfortable lead'' over his primary opponent, Miami congressman Kendrick Meek.
But Meek ended up beating Greene by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, which "clearly supports that the libelous articles and their aftermath were the reason why Greene lost,'' according to the suit, which was filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
One Aug. 8 story, by Times reporters Kris Hundley and Caryn Baird, outlined the 2006 sale of La Mirage, a 300-unit condominium complex fashioned from 1950s-era military housing in the Mohave Desert.
Greene's company sold the units to James Delbert McConville, who then "rented the identities'' of straw buyers to fraudulently obtain mortgages based on "inflated sales prices,'' the suit says. These buyers never intended to repay the mortgages and went into default.
After the foreclosures, the La Mirage units eventually sold at auction for an average of $25,000. Lenders — and ultimately U.S. taxpayers who bailed out the banks — were left holding the bag on nearly $34 million of worthless paper, the Times story said.
A federal grand jury later indicted McConville for fraud and money laundering related to La Mirage and other real estate transactions.
Greene signed deeds that transferred 200 units to buyers who defaulted. The deeds were drafted at McConville's direction and Greene signed them before they were complete on his broker's advice, the suit says. McConville assigned the property to new buyers, which is standard business practice, according to the suit.
In the Times story, Greene said: "I'm always signing blank deeds. That's how an escrow company works. If (McConville) put the deeds in other people's names, that's his business. All I care about is that I get my money.''
Greene, who said he never met McConville, "was not involved in any manner whatsoever in the alleged sales,'' the suit says.
Greene also alleges the Times "intentionally disregarded" multiple documents and a lengthy interview he gave before the story.
The suit also says Greene was defamed by an Aug. 13 story by Times political editor Adam C. Smith that dealt with various reports of partying on Greene's yacht, when he was single.
Among other things, the story noted that boxer Mike Tyson was a passenger on the yacht in 2005, during a tour around Europe, and that Tyson told Sports Illustrated he had used cocaine in Amsterdam that summer.
The suit alleges that the story conveyed "to the average reader that Greene was complicit in, and engaged in, criminal activity with Mike Tyson on Greene's yacht.''
Greene's lawyer in the libel suit is L. Lin Wood of Atlanta, who has sued the media on behalf of several high profile clients, including former California congressman Gary Condit, the parents of murdered Colorado youngster JonBenet Ramsey, and Richard Jewell, who fell under suspicion for a bombing during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
U.S. and state courts give the media broad protection to explore the backgrounds of candidates. But the media "are not granted unfettered right'' to defame candidates and alter the outcomes of elections, the suit says. The Times made serious allegations "knowingly based on false information.''
Brown, the Times editor, responded that "democracy won't work if we let lawsuits full of baseless charges from a political candidate inhibit us from providing voters with the independent information that they need and rely on."