Russian Oligarch’s Libel Suit Over Manafort Report Dismissed

Updated on
  • Judge says AP article didn’t defame Oleg Deripaska of Russia
  • AP reported Manafort worked for billionaire to help Putin

Paul Manafort

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A U.S. judge dismissed a libel lawsuit filed by a Russian oligarch against the Associated Press over an article about his business relationship a decade ago with Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

AP, citing interviews and business records, reported on March 22 that Manafort, a political consultant, had secretly worked for the oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, with a plan to “greatly benefit” the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Manafort signed a $10 million contract starting in 2006 to work for Deripaska, a close Putin ally, according to the report.

Oleg Deripaska

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The article reported that Manafort had “proposed in a confidential strategy plan” in 2005 to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics” to benefit Putin.

Manafort worked extensively in Ukraine for a decade, helping to get a pro-Russian candidate installed in Kiev. He’s now under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing Russia’s influence on Trump’s successful campaign last year.

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Deripaska, an aluminum magnate, claimed that AP falsely asserted he paid Manafort to act as an unregistered foreign agent and made him “appear to have engaged in criminal conduct.” He also said the article’s message was that “two private emissaries of Presidents Trump and Putin entered into an agreement to undermine governments of elected leaders.”

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled the AP article wasn’t defamatory. Deripaska failed to identify a single false statement that was “both capable of verification and capable of defamatory meaning,” according to the ruling Tuesday in federal court in Washington.

‘Anti-Democratic Agenda’

Deripaska had also claimed that AP accused him of being “jointly engaged in efforts to advance the Kremlin’s anti-democratic agenda.” The judge said the story made no such assertion.

“Deripaska has cherry-picked sentences and strung them together to give the AP’s article an effect it does not have when read in full,” Huvelle wrote. “But whole context is how courts determine whether there is defamation.”

She said Deripaska was a “limited-purpose public figure” under U.S. libel law because of his wealth and his newsworthy ties to the Russian government. Public figures have a higher legal burden. Deripaska had to show the article was published with actual malice, which is “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

Deripaska “does not come close to plausibly alleging” that the report was published with actual malice, Huvelle wrote.

Ukraine Business

Deripaska had argued that AP should have included more information about his business interests in Ukraine. But, the judge said, that wouldn’t have “undermined the conclusion that he was also engaged in advancing Russian interests more broadly, because, as the AP persuasively points out, ‘the two are not mutually exclusive.’”

Deripaska attorney Jonathan Schiller declined to comment. AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said the news agency was pleased with the decision. “We stand by our reporting and will continue to stand by our story,” Easton said.

The judge also ruled that Deripaska wasn’t defamed by statements about Manafort’s work in Ukraine in 2014 and about a U.S. investigation to recover stolen Ukrainian assets after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014.

“The article cannot be read to suggest that Deripaska is personally involved in the Trump campaign controversy or is accused of stealing Ukrainian assets,” the judge wrote.

Deripaska and Manafort had a falling out over a failed business deal in recent years.  Deripaska sued in the Cayman Islands seeking an accounting of an $18.9 million investment he made in a private equity fund set up by Manafort as well as $7.4 million in management fees that he paid, according to court records. Lawyers for the men have since agreed to resolve the matter outside of court -- and outside of public view, according to a person familiar with the matter.

(Updates with response from Deripaska attorney.)
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