Vincent Orange
Vincent Orange Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 5 D.C. Council candidate Vincent Orange is apparently still mad about the Washington Business Journal’s coverage of his tenure as president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. So bothered is Orange, a former Ward 5 and At-Large member of the Council, that he has filed a defamation lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against WBJ and its former reporter, Alex Koma, who is now City Paper’s Loose Lips columnist.

Orange’s complaint, filed in late March, focuses largely on WBJ and Koma’s coverage of a lawsuit filed against the Chamber in 2018. That suit accused the Chamber of not paying the law firm London & Mead and attorney Craig Reilly for about $79,000 worth of legal work they did to fight a ballot initiative that would have raised the minimum wage. The case has since settled out of court, but the terms are not public.

In particular, Orange’s defamation suit takes issue with an article that Koma wrote for WBJ in February 2020 with the headline, “Vincent Orange says the D.C. Chamber is financially strong. His lawyers say the opposite.” Koma’s piece focused in part on the apparent contradiction between Orange’s sunny descriptions of the Chamber’s financial situation and the Chamber’s attorney’s characterizations of the organization’s finances in court records.

In July 2019, a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the Chamber to pay nearly $79,000 in the now-settled fight over legal fees. The funds in question were seized from the Chamber’s bank account and held by the court, pending the Chamber’s appeal of that ruling. And in December 2019, the Chamber’s attorney, Ryan Jones, (who is currently running to replace Karl Racine as attorney general) told a judge in court records that the seizure “greatly harmed the business operations of the [Chamber],” and without them, the Chamber “cannot do business.”

Orange, who is representing himself in the defamation suit, alleges in his complaint that Koma failed to report on a later D.C. Court of Appeals opinion that reversed the D.C. Superior Court judge’s ruling against the Chamber. In fact, Koma did report on the appeals court ruling shortly after it was handed down.

Orange devotes part of the complaint to defending his tenure at the Chamber. The complaint alleges, for example, that in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, the Chamber ended each year with a “net positive increase in assets totaling in excess of $317,000.”

In his February 2020 article, Koma reported that the Chamber’s tax records showed an increase in net assets from a deficit of $8,800 in 2016 to $317,000 in assets in 2018. But, Koma reported, the Chamber’s expenses had “steadily grown and eaten into its profits under Orange’s tenure, though it has managed to stay in the black.” Koma also reported on the Chamber’s shrinking staff, Orange’s six-figure salary, and the loss of 19 big-dollar “circle partners” since 2013. Orange took over as CEO in 2016.

It’s unclear from Orange’s complaint what statements Orange alleges are defamatory. But in an emailed statement to City Paper, Orange cites a 2021 article, written by Koma and published in WBJ, that reported “a variety of prominent financial backers also abandoned the Chamber during Orange’s tenure, according to internal documents the Washington Business Journal obtained last year.” Orange alleges in the email that the statement is a “bold face lie.”

WBJ Editor in Chief Vandana Sinha says the publication has not been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment further. Koma, in a bit of an awkward conversation with his new editors, also declined to comment.

The statute of limitations to file a defamation suit in D.C. is one year. Orange filed the case exactly one year after the 2021 article was published. As a public figure, to succeed on his defamation claim, Orange must prove that WBJ acted with “actual malice,” meaning it published statements with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not. Orange is seeking $25 million in damages plus attorney’s fees. An initial hearing is scheduled for July 15.