Defamation lawsuit by Bill Gallaher and Scott Flater against The Press Democrat dismissed by appellate court
A state appellate court Friday dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed against The Press Democrat by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher and his son-in-law, Scott Flater, that challenged the newspaper’s reporting on the unprecedented sum of money spent by Flater to influence the 2016 Santa Rosa City Council election.
Gallaher and Flater sued the newspaper in late 2016 claiming their reputations were harmed in four stories published before that November’s election detailing $195,000 in independent expenditures by Flater to support three council candidates. The articles described historic spending for six open council seats, including a last-minute influx of cash for mailers and other materials.
In a unanimous decision, three justices with the First Appellate District court in San Francisco ruled that Gallaher and Flater failed to prove the stories were false. The justices rejected arguments by Gallaher and Flater that campaign expenditures were a private matter between the donor and the politician, stating that it is “beyond dispute” that elections and campaign spending are of widespread public interest and calling the plaintiffs’ attempt to argue otherwise “frivolous.”
“The Press Democrat articles reporting on Flater’s enormous independent expenditures, explaining Flater’s connection to Gallaher, and raising questions about the source of the funds spent by Flater were clearly in connection with an issue of public interest,” the justices wrote.
Gallaher, 68, and Flater, 42, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment Friday. Their attorneys, Michael Miller and Michael Denison, also did not respond to phone or email messages.
“This is an important decision for journalism, free speech, and a newspaper’s fundamental right and obligation to shine a bright light on issues of public interest,” said Steve Falk, chief executive officer of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
In the runup to the November 2016 election, Flater reported spending $202,574 on independent expenditures in support of three candidates — Jack Tibbetts, Ernesto Olivares and Don Taylor. The amount was equal to 89 percent of the total contributions raised directly in 2016 by all six candidates in the Santa Rosa City Council race combined, according to public records. The final figures, slightly higher than the $195,000 in independent expenditures reported by the newspaper at the time, were not publicly available until two months after the election.
Santa Rosa limits individual campaign contributions to $500, but state law allows donors and groups to spend an unlimited amount on independent expenditures not associated with candidates’ campaigns.
The spending by Flater, who has four children and listed himself as a “homemaker” in campaign filings, raised questions about the source of the money. He is married to Gallaher’s daughter, Molly Flater.
In their lawsuit, Flater and Gallaher claimed the articles were defamatory because they implied Gallaher was the source of the money spent on campaigns by Flater.
In a May 10, 2017, sworn declaration, Flater initially stated that no one, including Gallaher, ever provided him with money to donate to political candidates or make the 2016 independent expenditures. One week later, he modified his sworn declaration, removing the reference to independent expenditures.
The omission suggests the change was intentional, the court ruled. “For all practical purposes, it is a concession that plaintiffs cannot prove the falsity of the alleged implied assertion that Flater’s spending was funded by Gallaher or another source,” the justices wrote.