Court won’t dismiss defamation case involving Solana Beach mayor, political opponent and online alter egos
An appeals court ruled against dismissing lawsuits filed by Solana Beach Mayor Lesa Heebner and a local developer in a defamation case involving conflict-of-interest allegations made by a political rival, a campaign manager and an alter ego.
The lawsuits, which were filed in 2017, will return to the Superior Court for a jury trial.
The case stems from the 2016 Solana Beach City Council election, when psychiatrist Ed Siegel was one of six candidates vying for three at-large seats.
According to court documents, Siegel received a text in August 2016 from his campaign manager, Brian Hall, saying that they needed “retaliation” against Heebner, who said during a Democratic Party Central Committee meeting that Siegel was “not electable.” Heebner, who once owned a kitchen design business, had been on the City Council since 2004 and announced earlier that year she would step down at the end of her term.
That October, in a letter to the editor in the Coast News, Siegel alleged that Heebner and landscape architect Mike Nichols, who was on the Solana Beach council at the time, orchestrated a “back-door deal” to award a North County Transit District (NCTD) contract to Joseph Balla, a local developer. He attributed that accusation to “rumors.”
Hall further spread those claims by email and on social media using the pseudonym Andrew Jones. (Hall also gave Jones a fictitious wife named Lillian Rearden and set up email accounts for both, court records show.) He said without evidence that Heebner and Nichols planned on taking jobs with Balla after they helped him secure the NCTD contract, which involved a mixed-use development at Solana Beach’s Cedros Avenue train station. That property is owned by NCTD.
Balla’s firm, Strategic Assets, partnered with Cardiff-based RhodesMoore to submit a bid to NCTD. In October 2016, an NCTD selection committee ranked their bid the highest out of the four that the agency received.
The next month, Siegel’s bid for a council seat ended in last place on Election Day.
In a defamation lawsuit filed against Hall and Siegel in May 2017, Heebner and Nichols repeatedly said they had no direct control over NCTD’s decision to select Balla’s bid, and no plans to work for him. (Siegel later testified that he had no evidence that the two of them were involved in a backdoor deal, that they lobbied for Balla to get the contract or that they planned to work for Balla.) Balla had also filed a defamation lawsuit.
Weeks later, the NCTD board voted to enter negotiations with RhodesMoore. Solana Beach City Councilwoman Jewel Edson, the city’s lone representative on the nine-member board, recused herself.
A contract between NCTD and RhodesMoore was never consummated. In May 2018, the NCTD board terminated the exclusive negotiation agreement between the two sides.
Heebner, Nichols and Balla are seeking damages for the letter to the editor and emails Hall sent under his Andrew Jones alter ego. Heebner was also seeking damages for an ad Siegel ran in the Solana Beach Sun with an out-of-context quote by her that implied she supported his candidacy.
Hall filed anti-SLAPP motions, which are protections against baseless lawsuits that are used primarily to suppress free speech, seeking to dismiss the cases. A Superior Court judge denied those motions.
On Jan. 6, an appeals court upheld the Superior Court’s denial of the anti-SLAPP motions, with one exception. The appeals court ruled that “Heebner did not show the advertisement was defamatory per se or introduce evidence of special damages” in her false light claim over the Siegel newspaper ad that used her quote.
“We reject Hall’s attempt to portray his publications as merely stating some vague opinion that Heebner and Nichols were corrupt politicians or that Balla was an unethical developer,” Justice William Dato wrote in the court’s decision. “He made repeated claims about specific actions supposedly taken by plaintiffs, which they can prove are false.”
Hall argued that using an alias to present political opinions is part of a “respected tradition of anonymity” in political discourse. But the court ruled that “he did not simply use an alias, but rather created an identity, with a Facebook page, stock photo, and a wife.”
Hall also argued that “online blogs and message boards are places where readers expect to see strongly worded opinions rather than objective facts.” He also argued that there was no evidence that anyone accepted the allegations as facts.
The court, however, ruled that “although political speech is appropriately accorded wide latitude, especially in election campaigns, calculated or reckless falsehoods can still amount to defamation even in that context.”
Nichols, who now works for a North Carolina-based engineering firm, resigned from the Solana Beach City Council in 2018. He did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.
Heebner returned to the council in 2018 to finish the final eight months of Nichols’ term. She was elected mayor in November 2020.
“I was astonished that Brian Hall and Ed Siegel completely fabricated stories about me and Mike to deliberately damage our reputations,” Heebner said in an email. “They falsely claimed that we had engaged in corrupt actions, and thought they could get away with those false claims because it was during an election. Thankfully, the Court concluded that even in an election, you can’t lie.”
Hall and Siegel declined to comment.
Balla said in a statement sent by a spokesman that he feels “vindicated,” but added “nothing can erase the lies and false claims these two individuals published.”
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