Vincent Orange
Vincent Orange Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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A D.C. Superior Court judge dismissed Vincent Orange’s defamation lawsuit against the Washington Business Journal and its former reporter, Alex Koma. The decision last week from Judge Heidi Pasichow brings a end—for now—to a legal dispute over articles that Koma (who is now City Paper’s Loose Lips columnist) wrote between February 2020 and March 2021 about Orange’s tenure as president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Asked for comment late last week after the dismissal, Orange said via email that he intends to appeal. WBJ editor in chief Vandana Sinha declined to comment.

In his complaint, filed in March, Orange failed to specifically state which parts of the WBJ‘s coverage were defamatory, but during a hearing on Aug. 15, he identified multiple paragraphs in three articles that mostly deal with the Chamber’s financial stability during his tenure. Orange primarily took issue with WBJ and Koma’s characterizations of the Chamber’s “rocky financial footing” under his leadership. He also objected to the publication’s description of his decision to resign from the D.C. Council in 2016 “under pressure from ethics groups.”

Pasichow notes in her dismissal order that “tellingly, [Orange] stated at the August 15, 2022 Motion Hearing that he does not contest any of the underlying statistics and facts upon which the three articles are based,” which is particularly problematic in a defamation lawsuit where the first question a judge must ask is whether the statements in question are false.

Orange argued during the virtual hearing that the judge should allow the case to move forward because Koma and WBJ did not “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Koma and WBJ’s lawyers have argued that Orange is objecting to conclusions based disclosed facts and that the press is not obligated to present those facts according to Orange’s preferred narrative.

For example, Orange repeatedly cited the Chamber’s steadily increasing net revenue during his tenure. But WBJ took other factors into consideration, including Orange’s own statements in a separate legal dispute that the Chamber “cannot do business” without about $63,000 that a court seized from its bank account.

“Here, no defamatory meaning can be manufactured from Defendant’s published statements regarding the Chamber’s financial stability,” Pasichow writes in her order. She also rejected Orange’s claim that he did not resign “under pressure from ethics groups.”

“[Orange] contests that there was no ‘pressure from ethics groups’ because, based on a Google search, there exist six ethics organizations [in] the District including the Washington Ethical Society, the Washington D.C. Bar Association, and the City for Responsible Ethics in Washington,” Pasichow says in her order.

But, as WBJ’s attorneys note, several people called for Orange to resign when he accepted the job as the Chamber’s CEO while he was still a sitting councilmember, including other members of the Council, the D.C. attorney general, government watchdog group D.C. Watch, the Washington Post’s editorial board, and WBJ’s editor in chief.

“The court finds that the gist of the Defendants’ statement is substantially true, and that the statement is not actionable as defamation,” Pasichow writes.

During the virtual hearing last week, Orange said he was in the running to become president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, but after WBJ’s Feb. 12, 2020 article published, “I was done.”

Orange also said that as he was preparing to leave his job at the Chamber, he had applied to be the District’s CFO and was being considered as the president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, “but these articles are saying, ‘Orange is creating these deficits, [and the Chamber’s] fortunes are going down.’ Nothing but untruths that harm me dearly.”

WBJ’s attorney Chad Bowman filed a motion to dismiss under D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP law, which is in place to protect against frivolous lawsuits that target statements made on issues of public interest. The statute allows a judge to order the losing side to pay the prevailing side’s attorneys’ fees, but WBJ hasn’t asked that Orange pay their legal bills, and Pasichow hasn’t issued such an order.