From Pizzagate to the 2020 Election: Forcing Liars to Pay or Apologize

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Michael J. Gottlieb can never remember the exact amount — it’s $148,169,000— that a jury ordered Rudolph W. Giuliani to pay the Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss. But Ms. Freeman’s words after the December 2023 victory are indelible to him.

“Don’t waste your time being angry at those who did this to me and my daughter,” said Ms. Freeman 65, who with her daughter Ms. Moss, 39, was falsely accused by Mr. Giuliani of aiding an imagined plot to steal the 2020 presidential election.

“We are more than conquerors.”

Less than a decade ago, the two women would have struggled to find a lawyer. But Mr. Gottlieb, a partner at the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a former associate counsel in the Obama White House, represented them for free. Convinced that viral lies threaten public discourse and democracy, he is at the forefront of a small but growing cadre of lawyers deploying defamation, one of the oldest areas of the law, as a weapon against a tide of political disinformation.

Mr. Gottlieb has also represented the owner of the Washington pizzeria targeted by “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorists as well as the brother of Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee staffer whose 2016 murder ignited bogus theories implicating his family. In the Giuliani case, Mr. Gottlieb, his law partner Meryl Governski and other members of his team worked with Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that pushes for laws and policies to counter what it sees as authoritarian threats.

Before the Trump era and the explosion of social media, though, such cases were virtually nonexistent.

“The new information landscape we’re in is a little bit like the Wild West — a lawless space,” said Ian Bassin, a co-founder of Protect Democracy. Lawyers, he said, have turned to defamation, which is legally defined as any false information, either published, broadcast or spoken, that harms the reputation of a person, business or organization. “It’s one of the most effective and only strategies for dealing with these out-and-out falsehoods,” Mr. Bassin said.

In the past few years, more than a dozen high-profile defamation cases have made their way through the courts. A majority have been brought against defendants on the right, but the right brings lawsuits too, often against media organizations.

In 2020 and 2021, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC settled a defamation case brought by Nick Sandmann, a Kentucky high school student, who said the outlets had wrongly described his encounter with a Native American elder as a racially tinged confrontation. Mr. Sandmann’s suit against other outlets, including The New York Times, ended last week when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Payouts have been particularly large for defamation cases against the right. In January the lawyer Roberta Kaplan defeated former President Donald J. Trump in court when a jury ordered him to pay $83 million for defaming her client, E. Jean Carroll, a writer he sexually abused. Last year lawyers from the firm Susman Godfrey secured a $787.5 million settlement for Dominion Voting Systems from Fox News, one of the biggest ever in a defamation case, after Fox aired bogus theories falsely linking the company to election fraud. In late 2022 Sandy Hook families defamed by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones won a total of nearly $1.5 billion from juries in Texas and Connecticut, though Mr. Jones has yet to pay them anything.

In other cases, the people harmed, like Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss, cannot afford lawyers or struggle to find firms willing to pursue defendants unable or resistant to paying big damages, like Mr. Giuliani. Mr. Gottlieb has tried to fill that gap.

“The cost of bringing a defamation suit to trial can be enormous, often exceeding a quarter-million dollars’ worth of expenses, to say nothing of the value of attorney time,” said Mark Bankston, a lawyer for some of the Sandy Hook families defamed by Mr. Jones.

Mr. Gottlieb and his team refer to their cases as a “hobby” in service to those whose lives and reputations have been damaged by people with power and large online followings. “I’ve always despised bullies that pick on defenseless or seemingly defenseless people,” Mr. Gottlieb, 47, said in an interview in his K Street office in Washington. “There are so many ways to make your political points without endangering individual people’s lives.”

Mr. Gottlieb’s day job is filled with the powerful client list more typical of big Washington law firms. He has represented Venezuela’s Citgo petroleum company; helped the billionaire Steven A. Cohen beat a potential lifetime ban on managing client money after accusations of insider trading at Mr. Cohen’s former hedge fund; and worked with President Biden’s son Hunter on behalf of a Romanian real estate tycoon whose seven-year prison sentence for corruption was later vacated by a Romanian court.

“I understand there are definitely people who would say, ‘Wait a minute — litigation for Citgo is not the same as the litigation you’re doing for Ruby and Shaye,’” he said. “I feel fortunate to have had a career where I’ve had a wide variety of cases and have a practice that works different skill sets and different parts of my brain.

“However people want to think about it and look at it is sort of fine with me.”

Mr. Gottlieb, who was a clerk for Justice John Paul Stevens and served on an Obama administration anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan, had his first foray into the post-truth world in 2016. That was when Mr. Jones and his Infowars outlet spread the lie that Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party operatives were running a child sex trafficking ring out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington pizzeria owned by James Alefantis.

In December of that year, a man who had been binging on Infowars “Pizzagate” episodes fired a rifle inside the restaurant. No one was injured, but the gunman’s trip to Washington to avenge an imagined crime foreshadowed a series of violent attacks by conspiracy theorists, including the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection.

Mr. Jones insisted that the First Amendment protected the lies he had broadcast, like most defendants in these cases. But threatened with a lawsuit, he made an on-air retraction and removed all Pizzagate content from Infowars’ website and social media channels. The full settlement remains confidential.

Soon after the Pizzagate case, Mr. Gottlieb represented Aaron Rich, whose brother Seth Rich, 27, worked for the Democratic National Committee and was gunned down in a botched robbery in 2016. The case remains unsolved, and wild theories that Seth Rich was killed by Democrats spread from online fever swamps to Fox News. Aaron Rich and his parents were implicated in the plots, doxxed and harassed.

“If this had happened to me or my brother or sister and somebody was doing this to my parents, I would go ballistic,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “And no one was helping them.”

In 2018 Mr. Gottlieb and Aaron Rich sued The Washington Times as well as an internet provocateur, Matt Couch, and a businessman, Ed Butowsky, for spreading falsehoods that the two brothers had sold D.N.C. documents in a plot that resulted in Seth Rich’s murder. Mr. Rich eventually received a confidential settlement that included a retraction of the falsehoods spread by both men and the newspaper, as well as an apology to the Rich family. Mr. Rich’s parents retained Susman Godfrey and sued Fox News. They obtained a confidential cash settlement, but no apology.”

The Rich case had taken years. At one point Mr. Gottlieb was named in a sweeping defamation lawsuit filed by one of the defendants, which was later dropped.

The aftermath of the 2020 election brought more calls from potential clients. Mr. Gottlieb appealed for help to Mr. Bassin, the co-founder of Protect Democracy, who had served with Mr. Gottlieb in the Obama White House Counsel’s Office.

Less than two months later, Mr. Gottlieb and his team were writing the complaint in Ruby Freeman, et al., v. Rudolph Giuliani.

In his frenzied public scramble to make his case that the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump, Mr. Giuliani, the former president’s lawyer, had spread the false story that Ms. Freeman and her daughter Ms. Moss had colluded to falsify results while counting ballots in Georgia. He falsely claimed that a video showing Ms. Freeman handing a small item to her daughter — a ginger mint — was the two women exchanging USB thumb drives “as if they’re vials of heroin and cocaine.”

Mr. Trump echoed the bogus allegations. In an infamous taped phone call with Georgia election officials, Mr. Trump named Ms. Freeman again and again, calling her a “professional vote scammer” and “hustler.”

Threats poured in to the two women. People called them traitors and, using racial slurs, demanded they be lynched or shot. Others banged on Ms. Freeman’s front door and lurked outside her home, forcing her into hiding. Ms. Moss had to give up her job as an election worker and struggled to find work.

Mr. Giuliani said he would prove his innocence. But he failed to submit court-ordered documents, testify or call witnesses. In the courtroom, he fiddled with his phone and rolled his eyes while the two women described their terror.

In December, a jury in federal court in Washington ordered Mr. Giuliani to pay Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss the $148 million. The case was put on hold after Mr. Giuliani declared bankruptcy, and Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss are now suing Mr. Giuliani again, for his continued false statements about them.

Law for Truth, part of Protect Democracy, has in the meantime filed defamation suits against the makers of the election conspiracy theory film “20,000 Mules”; James O’Keefe, the former leader of Project Veritas, a right-wing group known for its sting operations; and Kari Lake, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, on behalf of people smeared by lies Ms. Lake told about the 2020 election.

Despite the activity, lawyers who see themselves as crusaders against lies are not declaring victory. Their cases are high profile and target key disinformation spreaders, but they acknowledge that they do not put a dent in more general widespread disinformation, like false statements about Covid vaccines.

“I think these lawsuits may be effective in stemming some of the worst viral disinformation,” said Katie Fallow, a senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “But there may be limits to how effective these lawsuits can be when there are other incentives, particularly political ones, to keep spreading it.”

Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.


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