Vincent Orange is fighting to keep his defamation lawsuit against the Washington Business Journal and its former reporter (and current City Paper Loose Lips columnist) Alex Koma from being dismissed. If he is unsuccessful, the Ward 5 Council candidate and former head of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce could be on the hook for his defendants’ growing legal bills.
The impetus for the lawsuit is Koma’s WBJ article from March 22, 2021, announcing that Angela Franco would replace Orange as the Chamber’s president and CEO on a permanent basis. The article says the Chamber “was on some rocky financial footing” before Orange left, due in part to a long-running (and now settled) legal dispute and the loss of “prominent financial backers.”
Ballard Spahr attorneys representing WBJ and Koma filed a special motion to dismiss the case under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP law. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation;” the law aims to protect parties against lawsuits that attack statements of public interest.)
The attorneys point out that Orange’s lawsuit does not say what, exactly, is false in Koma’s reporting. And even if it did, the attorneys argue, Orange cannot show that Koma or WBJ acted with “actual malice,” the standard a public figure such as Orange must meet to succeed on a defamation claim. Instead, the lawyers say, Orange’s beef appears to be with the conclusions drawn from those facts.
“Orange is free to disagree with how facts should be characterized,” attorney Chad Bowman says in court filings. “What he cannot properly do, though, is use defamation law to ask the Court to rule that his interpretation is the only correct one to punish a journalist. That request, especially coming from a politician who appears to have filed this lawsuit as a campaign tactic, is exactly the type of thin-skinned attack the First Amendment forbids.”
(Disclosure: City Paper retains other attorneys in Ballard Spahr’s media law practice.)
Bowman doesn’t elaborate on his claim that Orange filed the suit as a campaign tactic, but court filings and the Ward 5 candidate’s most recent finance report offer a hint. According to court records, Orange hired a man named Alonzo Edmondson to serve Koma with the lawsuit on April 5. His finance report shows that he cut Edmondson a check for $150 a few days later, on April 15.
Did Orange use campaign funds to pay for a process server in his lawsuit?
“Of course not,” he tells City Paper via email. “The payment for service of process come from my personal funds.” The payment to Edmondson out of his campaign account “was for security services for my campaign event at the O Street Mansion” on April 15, Orange says.
In his reply to the anti-SLAPP motion, Orange, who is representing himself, reveals the parts of Koma’s reporting he believes are wrong. Orange claims Koma and WBJ’s assertion in the March 2021 article that the Chamber was on “rocky financial footing” before Orange’s departure is not true.
That piece linked to another article, published in February 2020, that reported on the contradiction between Orange’s positive descriptions of the Chamber’s finances and the rather dour picture his own attorneys painted in court. The February article cited the Chamber’s own tax filings, its shrinking board of directors, and a decline in high-dollar financial backers as evidence of “a persistent slide in its fortunes in the last several years.” The piece also noted that net assets “steadily increased” since Orange took over in 2016.
“Koma’s written publication that the DC Chamber under Vincent Orange show [sic] a persistent slide in its fortunes in the last several years is simple [sic] untrue under any stretch of the imagination,” Orange argues, pointing to increases in revenue, membership dues, and contract and grant revenue during his tenure.
“One plus one equals two,” Orange goes on to say in his reply. “Koma is not allowed to write one plus one equals four and hold another one accountable for the intentional misrepresentation.”
Orange also claims the anti-SLAPP law does not apply to him. He argues in court filings that his departure as the Chamber’s president in June 2020 shifted the public interest to Franco, his replacement.
WBJ attorneys appear to scoff at that assertion, saying in their reply that Orange “makes no serious argument against application of the Anti-SLAPP Act.”
“He is a public figure and former public official who—while currently seeking to return to elected office—has asserted claims against Koma based on statements referring to those public roles,” attorney Matthew Cate writes in court filings “The Act thus clearly applies to those statements.” The March 2021 article also references Orange’s failed bid for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council—something that’s clearly a matter of public interest, the lawyers argue.
In the second sentence of his lawsuit, Orange refers to himself as “a public figure based on his many years of achievement in the handling of public affairs,” including as a councilmember and as the Chamber’s president and CEO.
The most recent filings also resurrect an ethics issue that has followed Orange since he left office. After losing his at-large Council seat to Robert White in the June 2016 primary, he accepted the top job at the Chamber in July and intended to serve out the remainder of his term, which would expire at the end of that calendar year. Multiple councilmembers described Orange’s dual roles—legislator with oversight of business policy and chief lobbyist for the business community—as a glaring conflict of interest. The Washington Post’s editorial board and WBJ’s editor in chief subsequently called for Orange to resign.
Adding to the outrage was a Post op-ed Orange wrote in 2011 arguing that councilmembers should not be allowed to hold second jobs. “It is difficult for residents to accept that outside employment does not carry the potential for conflicts of interest, unethical behavior, corruption and divided loyalties,” Orange wrote. He eventually caved and resigned in August 2016.
Since he returned to the political spotlight with an unsuccessful run for an at-large Council seat in 2020, Orange has pushed back against the notion that holding the two jobs at once was a conflict of interest, citing a letter from the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability. While that letter does say he could run for and hold public office while serving as the Chamber’s leader, it goes on to explain that the specific duties of each job may conflict or at least cause the appearance of a conflict.
In his lawsuit, Orange claims Koma and WBJ “revived this conflict-of-interest declaration” in the February 2020 article. But, as their lawyers point out, the article only says Orange “generated plenty of controversy,” and eventually resigned “under pressure from ethics groups.” It does not accuse Orange of having a conflict of interest.
“Regardless of what the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability might have had to say about the matter, Orange’s argument is abhorrent to the First Amendment, which protects the principle that ‘criticism of those responsible for government operations must be free,’” Cate, the defense attorney, says in court documents. “That legal authority fully protects the right of the Journal, and anyone else, to criticize a politician for seeking to serve on the D.C. Council while working for the District’s principal business lobby and to characterize that dual role as a conflict of interest.”
If Koma and WBJ win their motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP law, a judge could also order Orange to pay their costs and attorneys’ fees. The exact amount would be the subject of more briefing. But the farther the case goes, the higher those fees will get. A hearing is scheduled for July 15.