Frank VanderSloot is an Idaho-based billionaire CEO of a company called Melaleuca that sells dietary supplements and cleaning products in a manner that has been likened to the dubious Amway model. He is supposedly a devout Mormon who has opposed measures that are seen as gay-friendly and he and his company are one of the largest donors ($1 million) to the pro-Romney SuperPAC, Restore Our Future and he is its national finance co-chair. You would think his name would be familiar to political junkies like me. But I had never heard of him or his controversial business and political practices before.
It turns out that there is a good reason for this. Glenn Greenwald has a sensational article where he says that “VanderSloot’s chronic bullying threats to bring patently frivolous lawsuits against his political critics — magazines, journalists, and bloggers” manage to suppress articles critical of him. Even major publications like Forbes and Mother Jones seem to have succumbed to the pressure.
One of the problems with the legal system is that rich people can threaten ordinary people with lawsuits that are time consuming and very costly to defend, even if the defendant is completely in the right. The oligarchs have the money to throw expensive lawyers at their much poorer opponents even though 30 states have so called anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statutes on their books to prevent such intimidatory tactics. As Greenwald says:
He has been using this abusive tactic in Idaho for years: suppressing legitimate political speech by threatening or even commencing lawsuits against even the most obscure critics (he has even sued local bloggers for “copyright infringement” after they published a threatening letter sent by his lawyers). This tactic almost always succeeds in silencing its targets, because even journalists and their employers who have done nothing wrong are afraid of the potentially ruinous costs they will incur when sued by a litigious billionaire.
VanderSloot is going after LGBT journalists and bloggers in Idaho and his latest target is an independent Boise journalist Jody May-Chang who seems to have decided to not back down. Greenwald has said that if necessary, he will try and galvanize his readership to come to May-Chang’s defense. As a lawyer himself, he knows that many such cases never go to trial because these wealthy bullies have an Achilles heel, in that actually going to trial on a defamation case will mean that “virtually every aspect of a person’s private and business life — anything relating to their reputation and financial activities — is subject to discovery and investigation” and secretive wealthy people hate that.
Greenwald is clearly aware that VanderSloot will consider going after him too. He has thrown down the gauntlet, challenging VanderSloot to do so.
But many people who threaten to bring such suits — especially those with deep pockets making threats against those who cannot afford to defend themselves — know full well that it will never get that far because the threats themselves will suffice. That’s the dynamic that has to change, and (this is addressed to any lawyers for VanderSloot and Melaleuca reading this) this is the dynamic that will change if someone stands up to these pernicious tactics.
I think Greenwald will win this one because he is so high profile and has a huge audience. Furthermore, the last thing that Romney needs at this stage is to have a controversial Mormon backer to bring attention to his own religion and his wealth. But if VanderSloot does go after him, Greenwald will likely get the support of free speech and civil liberties advocates, LGBT groups, journalists, bloggers, and all those who are just sick and tired of the 1% using their wealth to push the rest of us around. Wealthy people like VanderSloot who can play such a huge role in our elections system by virtue of their money cannot be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy.
This is why I think Greenwald is one of the best journalists and advocates of civil liberties around. He is willing to go to the mat for basic freedoms and liberties and take on anyone, however powerful. And the rest of us will need to galvanize support for him and May-Chang if VanderSloot should sic his lawyers on him. I will be backing them to the hilt.