A state Supreme Court judge has dismissed a libel lawsuit brought by a Buffalo developer against Investigative Post and reporter Dan Telvock.
State Supreme Court Judge Mark Montour also ruled developer James Sweizy and his company Greenleaf Development & Construction failed to prove Telvock’s story, published in 2017, contained any false information and dismissed a related “injurious falsehood” claim.
The 2017 report documented how officials at SUNY Buffalo State failed to follow usual procurement rules in dealing with Greenleaf regarding construction of student housing adjacent to the Elmwood Avenue campus. The story also reported that Swiezy gave a college official a set of golf drivers and had made donations to the school’s foundation during the period the deal was being negotiated.
In his ruling, Montour not only dismissed Swiezy and Greenleaf’s claims, but also applied New York’s Anti-SLAPP law, which has two parts, here and here. The law mandates an award of attorney’s fees and costs when a judge determines a lawsuit is without a substantial factual or legal basis.
That leaves Swiezy and Greenleaf potentially liable for legal bills running well into six figures.
Attorney Joseph Finnerty, who, along with Karim Abdulla, defended Investigative Post, declared the court ruling “a complete and total vindication of Investigative Post’s 2017 reporting.”
Swiezy, 61, is president of Greenleaf Development & Construction Co, which he founded in 1986. The company develops and manages commercial and residential projects. Its present holdings include 650 apartments and 250,000 square feet of commercial space and 650 apartments. Public records show Swiezy owns a 7,050 square foot house on Lincoln Parkway that he bought for $1.4 million in 2016.
The story in question, written by Telvock, an award-winning reporter for Investigative Post, was published and broadcast on WGRZ, Channel 2, on Feb. 21, 2017. (Swiezy and Greenleaf did not sue WGRZ.)
The story read in part:
The college and one of its foundations struck a deal with developer Greenleaf Development and Construction that facilitated the building of dorm-style housing adjacent to campus without competitive proposals or independent review by the state comptroller. These are procedures that typically govern SUNY dealings with private businesses …
Regardless of the legality of the deal, emails obtained by Investigative Post under the Freedom of Information Law show Buffalo State officials failed to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with Greenleaf CEO Jim Swiezy while negotiating the deal. In fact, during the course of negotiations, [Michael LeVine, the college’s vice president for finance and management] accepted a free set of golf clubs from Swiezy and one of the college’s foundations accepted at least $15,000 in donations from him and his company.
A previous story, published and broadcast on Nov. 11, 2015, was not a part of the libel lawsuit. That story, also reported by Telvock, who is now an investigative producer with WIVB, Channel 4, investigated Greenleaf’s business practices.
Readers voted the investigation the best story published by Investigative Post in 2015.
Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney termed the stories on Greenleaf as “damn fine investigative reporting” and put the lawsuit in context.
“There’s a trend across the country of well-heeled people unhappy with coverage suing nonprofit news organizations in an effort to intimidate, bankrupt or otherwise silence them,” he said.
“We viewed this as a lawsuit designed to chill speech and investigative journalism. It served as an opportunity for Investigative Post to send a broader message: we produce sound journalism, we are proud of it, and we will always vigorously defend our work no matter how extreme the attack.”