Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene is suing area blogger Jose Lambiet and his company GossipExtra Inc. for libel.
In a complaint filed in Palm Beach County on Friday, Jan. 12, Greene alleges that his reputation was harmed by a story that appeared on Lambiet’s website gossipextra.com.
On Dec. 3, Lambiet published an article titled: “Is Billionaire Jeff Greene behind dirty politics of downtown West Palm Beach Development?”
The story focuses on organized opposition against the development of a 25-story office tower on the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach.
The project, proposed by CityPlace developer The Related Cos. and known as One Flagler, failed to get approval from the city commission who rejected the required zoning change needed for the project to move forward in a 3-2 vote.
The close vote followed hours of public comments and months of lobbying and campaigning on both sides.
In the run up to the final vote thousands of mailers critical of the project were sent by the Coalition for Reasonable Development.
Lambiet reported that former state house representative Sharon Merchant’s company Merchant Strategy was behind the non-existent group and produced the flyer and lobbied against the project on behalf of her client she identified as Trump Plaza.
Residents of Trump Plaza expressed objections to the project claiming it would block the view of the Intracoastal Waterway and Palm Beach and would create traffic problems.
The story goes on to quote Trump Plaza Condo Association president Abe Bernstein, who said, “Jeff Greene says he might not be able to build his project if The Related goes ahead,” Bernstein said. “That would be a shame because we support Jeff Greene’s projects.”
The story also references a "push" against another development proposal.
When New York developer Charles Cohen in July expressed interest in developing the ‘tent site’ on the corner of Dixie Highway and Okeechobee Boulevard, city officials started to receive phone calls asking to reject a proposal by Cohen, claiming he is a racist.
Lambiet wrote that these "coordinated attacks" may have been funded by Jeff Greene and quotes unnamed sources as having said Greene could have been behind the campaign, something Greene denied in the same story
“Of course it’s not me,” Greene is quoted as saying. “I like (The Related Companies’) Steve Ross and Charles Cohen. And I’m looking forward to Charles doing more things in and around the city.”
In the lawsuit attorneys for Greene write that they sent a letter to Lambiet two days after publication asking him to correct and retract defamatory accusations.
Lambiet denied that request and now he's faced with a lawsuit that in addition to a retraction seeks unspecified compensation for damages and attorney fees.
Reached by phone, Lambiet said he has not been served with the court papers and therefore initially declined to comment.
Later he sent a statement that reads as follows:
“I am not aware of a lawsuit, however, I would not be surprised. Mr. Greene has made it a sport to harass and intimidate the press over the years, including Gossip Extra. I would be in prestigious company: Mr. Greene sued the Miami Herald for libel in 2012. I stand by the handful of stories I have published about Mr. Greene over the years in accuracy, tone and fairness. If Mr. Greene is unhappy with the freedoms of the press, may I suggest he use tactics his fellow billionaires already mastered: Buy off politicians and order them to rescind freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, including the First Amendment.”
We called and left a message for Green's attorney Lin Wood asking for comment, but at this time we have not heard back from him.
Attorney Deanna Shullman, who has represented WPTV in first amendment cases, explained that because Jeff Greene is a public figure the evidence standard is higher than the usual burden of proof in civil cases. "Public figure plaintiffs have to prove actual malice in order to prevail in defamation claims. The plaintiff has to show knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. “Reckless disregard” is more than the journalist should have considered this or overlooked that. Reckless disregard amounts to a subjective awareness of probable falsity at the time the statement is published. It’s a very difficult standard for plaintiffs to meet."