Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Debbie Zimmerman's SLAPP suit fizzles!

Debbie Zimmerman is a well-known individual around the Niagara area and she has worked hard at trying to remain so. She is seen popping up at the Roundtable for CKTB, at the Niagara District Council of Women, or making speeches at A Better Niagara, a non-profit citizens group with executive director Ed Smith. From time to time you may see a letter to the editor published by Ms. Zimmerman. Her curriculum vitae can be considered fairly impressive: from 1989 to 2014 she represented Grimsby on Niagara Regional Council, and for two terms, 1997 through to 2003, as Regional Chair. Currently, she is the CEO of the Grape Growers of Ontario. In addition to these impressive achievements Debbie Zimmerman might be called a SLAPPer.

Today most have heard the term SLAPP suits or the Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It is a weapon used to shut down public discussion on matters of public interest by those usually who fear the truth. Often it is journalists and publishers who find themselves slammed with SLAPP suits to shut down and withdraw any article which raises uncomfortable questions or uncovers information which is preferred to remain in a closet.

The Ontario government passed the Protection of Public Participation Act in 2015. This was an attempt to help defendants of these lawsuits to seek to have those actions dismissed in a relatively expedient and less expensive manner. Sadly the operative word though is “relatively,” as the cost of any legal action is extremely high. Journalists working in the traditional hemisphere of publishing giants are protected by their publishers. They can now argue a new defense called “responsible communication” provided by the Supreme Court of Canada in two rulings in 2008 and 2009, WIC Radio Ltd. v Simpson and Grant v Torstar Corp.

Yet the threat of a lawsuit still is a difficult and a daunting issue to deal with, even with a publisher at one's back with deep pockets. Winning a lawsuit such as this only brings potential relief for legal costs and nothing else. The plaintiff who files the SLAPP suit faces no other consequences for their allegations. So the independent journalist, the blogger, faces a greater risk when slammed with a lawsuit. Whether mainstream journalists like it or not it is a fact that serious bloggers or independent journalists are providing real news and sometimes news that the mainstream scribes decide to censor. As such these individuals are at a greater risk to the threat of a SLAPP suit.

One independent journalist, Jessie Brown, who had established CANADALAND in 2013, a news site and podcast breaking stories that traditional or mainstream journalists would not, understands the looming threat of SLAPP suits. In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review, ('Jessie Brown punctures Canada's media bubble', by Simon Liem Jan/Feb 2015), Jessie Brown spoke of a decision he had to make whether to publish or not. Brown had been given information by an anonymous source alleging that CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi had been using his fame to lure and sexually assault women. Without hesitation Brown knew that if he published what he had uncovered he would be sued and “characterized as a crackpot blogger.” Rather than risk a crippling lawsuit Jessie Brown took all his information to Keven Donovan a leading investigative journalist with The Toronto Star. Eventually, an article by Brown and Donovan regarding Ghomeshi was published, and the rest is history. There was an ensuing trial and in 2016 Ghomeshi was acquitted of five of the charges and he signed a peace bond and aplogised to his accuser on the sixth. Jessie Brown knew what a SLAPP suit would do to him, his family and the story itself.

As publisher and journalist of my website, Mayorgate, I have on several occasions broken stories that local media refused to do. I have also often spoken loudly against the self-imposed censorship of news by the only real newspaper in this town, the St. Catharines Standard. Granted there is Niagara This Week, a paper which is delivered free to homes once a week, but the real news is expected to be provided by The Standard. Simply put the public has the absolute right to know what is happening in their community from a free and unbiased press, and that is a cornerstone to a true democracy. Mayorgate's goal is to provide news, information, and commentary; to stimulate discussion and questions without allegiance to anyone's policies or agenda.

Rumours had been floating of an alleged affair between the Mayor of St. Catharines at the time, Brian McMullan and Regional Councillor Debbie Zimmerman. As rumors are often unverifiable Mayorgate avoided paying attention, until in early 2014 a brown paper envelope was left at my work station whilst I was at lunch. The contents of this envelope were a shock to read. It was a copy of the divorce papers filed by Patricia Ruth McMullan, the now ex-wife of Mayor Brian McMullan.

What were rumours now found absolute and undeniable substance in legal fact as per filed court papers. The questions this raised were enormous. Both Brian McMullan as Mayor and Councillor Zimmerman sat on regional council, just the issue of conflict of interest was alarming. Reading those divorce papers and the allegations by Mrs. McMullan raised even more dangerously alarming questions.

I published an article titled 'Degradation of Public Office' on May 19th 2014. In early June a Notice of Action in the form of a letter, dated June 2nd, 2014 from Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, signed by Jordan Goldblatt on behalf of his client Debbie Zimmerman was received. This is where I should clarify what I meant as being a SLAPPer. It was never anything so gauche or kinky as slapping literally. Debbie Zimmerman now joined the myriad of individuals who find the need to remove the public's ability to know the truth and to discuss or question events. This was news, real news and without a doubt of public interest. This action was simply designed to threaten, harass and intimidate so that the article was removed and an apology provided to Debbie Zimmerman. Though it was no ordinary threat or accusation of defamation, it went further to threaten with a Criminal Code complaint under S. 298.

The Criminal Code of Canada under s. 298(1) – Defamatory Libel states, “A defamatory libel is a matter published, without lawful justification or excuse, that is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or that is designed to insult the person of or concerning whom it is published.” Further as s. 300 – Punishment of Libel know to be false, states, “Everyone who publishes a defamatory libel that he knows is false is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.”

Debbie Zimmerman threatened me with potential imprisonment for raising questions that any reasonable individual would have a right to ask. These questions were not based on rumours but on court-filed documents. This made me wonder if I was in Egypt or Saudi Arabia and Zimmerman was a princess. The threat in writing was followed by a Statement of Claim, to which I responded with a Statement of Defense, and an article on Mayorgate, not an apology.

Mayorgate's article 'Debbie Zimmerman Attacks Mayorgate' made the threat public. After the claim by Zimmerman and my defence were filed the following five years remained silent. There was no exchange of affidavits of documents, no discoveries or court dates for trial. Silence remained until the Ontario Superior Court of Justice sent me an Order Dismissing Action for Delay dated the 11th of June 2019. 

Threat of potential imprisonment hung over me for five years. The Protection of Public Participation Act as useful as taking an aspirin for a broken leg. Zimmerman's fear of the truth or public questioning reached a crescendo only to fizzle out like a pricked balloon. To add, Zimmerman's five years of silence after the commencement of legal action was also The Standard's censorship of the news.

Much later the Standard did publish a letter to the editor written by Debbie Zimmerman which begins with “Abraham Lincoln once compared elections to a fire.” One might think this a slightly ambiguous phrase possibly, or maybe President Lincoln said more to put it into context? Maybe Zimmerman extracted her shortened version from these words by Abraham Lincoln; “Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” No ambiguity here, none at all. Whatever quote she got it from she continues in her letter to say that women in politics “faced a heightened scrutiny our male counterparts did not,” and finished “women in politics became more effective leaders because the electorate was so closely scrutinizing who we were.”

Zimmerman's letter was published on October 17th, 2018 and a nagging question remains, is it the scrutiny or the fire that she fears? That fear took another step towards the sublime by naming a local activist Fred Bracken as a co-defendant in her legal claim against me. It appeared that Mr. Bracken besides posting a comment on my article, as anyone may, had tweeted several times questioning the alleged affair, and linked my article to it. Now anyone in Canada for that matter, even China, has the legal right to read any article that I had written and if they wish attach it anywhere. As long as they don't claim they wrote it. Zimmerman decided that through his actions Mr. Bracken had republished my Mayorgate article.

Naming Mr. Bracken as a co-defendant to me, especially as I had no association with him whatsoever, had me wonder what kind of fixation did Zimmerman have on him? Really it was not an odd question as Maryanne Firth of The Standard gave it more credence with her article, 'Trespass notice ruled a charter violation' published November 26th, 2015. Maryanne Firth writes, “In her affidavit Zimmerman alleged Bracken also made unfounded allegations regarding her personal life,” Firth further claims that court documents allege that Bracken was standing in the public gallery and “asked Zimmerman why she was suing him personally because of an article he had written about her.”

Bracken had not written any article about Zimmerman and was being sued as a co-defendant in my lawsuit as already explained. Who gave this information to Maryanne Firth of The Standard? Firth eludes to some “court documents” but what does she mean? Was it the lawsuit? Was it a simple empty affidavit? Exactly what was Maryanne Firth saying here? People rely on clarity from a newspaper, facts that are verifiable, something tangible. All of that may be true, but the Standard was the newspaper that ensured not a word of the alleged affair or divorce of former Mayor Brian McMullan reached the public's ears. If that's not censorship than someone please explain what is the English meaning of the word.

Before any yelping squeezes from the Standard's editors or 'journos' for my comments, I will impart more information. I interviewed Patricia McMullan, the ex-Mrs. Brian McMullan, in a Tim Hortons in Thorold with a witness present. This interview took place on the 9th of January 2016, lasting one hour, 54 minutes and 33 seconds. How am I so precise? The interview was recorded. Patricia McMullan provided some disturbing information, and one thing that she said was that she went to see Doug Herod of The Standard. Doug always thought he was clever or funny in his style of commentary, but here he listened to all Patricia McMullan had to say, looked at all she had brought him and then said, there was nothing he could do. These were the words of the ex-Mrs. McMullan to me.

Debbie Zimmerman's panic or desire to shut down any public comment apparently still exists today. On May of 2019 something popped up on Twitter. The handle was @HarajukuNiagara – Niagara4Now, and the tweet read: “Grant's claim to fame: an award for “investigative journalism” err publishing illegally supplied closed session info. Debbie's claim to fame? Turner? Expensing hotel bills to taxpayers for a lover's tryst? #sad #nobailout.” This tweet had Zimmerman tagged.

Within a very short time Niagara4Now's tweet was removed and was not seen again, and under the handle @HarajukuNiagara the account had been renamed HND. Now these are only presumptions and who knows what is fact here. Is the Grant referred to Grant Lafleche of the Standard? Did Grant LaFleche threaten the mysterious Niagara4Now? Or was the Debbie referred to in the tweet Debbie Zimmerman? What hotel bills could have been “expensing” to taxpayers? There is a tag @dzimmermangrap1, is that a possible clue? Since Niagara4Now has disappeared was he or she threatened by Debbie Zimmerman just like I was? Questions without answers, or at least none that Debbie Zimmerman will provide if asked.

Zimmerman through her lawyer Jordan Goldblatt of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP issued, served and filed a threat through the courts. Zimmerman used the justice system as her personal threat tool she pulled out of her handbag, as she might a stick of lipstick. I did not aplogise. I wanted to go into court. I wanted to gather all the evidence needed to defend myself against Debbie Zimmerman's allegations and threats. Zimmerman decided to let the court dismiss her action after five years. Now the question is, does our justice system provide consequences for such intentional threats?

Zimmerman paraphrases President Lincoln but I prefer this quote from Marie Henein, (Senior partner at Henein Hutchinson LLP), a very well known Canadian lawyer when she appeared at IdeaCity's annual conference in June 2019. Ms. Henein said: “That's what its about, all under the guise that this, an elected official is the true voice of the people. That's a scam, friends, a complete and utter scam, snake oil.”