THE LIBEL CASE THAT WOULDN'T DIE AFTER A DECADE, TWO ATTORNEYS PRESS A CLAIM AGAINST THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC

Few Arizona Republic readers will remember an August 1, 1984, story headlined "U.S. Crime Strike Force in L.A. Accused of Corruption."

The story seemed straightforward enough. Its opening sentence:
"The U.S. Justice Department is investigating allegations of corruption and misconduct of high-ranking officials of the federal Organized Crime and Racketeering Strike Force, the Arizona Republic has learned."

Reporter Jerry Seper wrote that federal officials had directed the probe at former Valley resident James D. Henderson, then the head of the Los Angeles-based strike force, and at Richard Crane, Henderson's predecessor.

The story said a congressional committee had conducted its own secret, four-month investigation into the allegations, then had requested the probe.

A key source for Seper and the feds was an incarcerated career criminal named Jerry Vann. Vann claimed that Henderson and Crane had ties to organized crime, and that Crane--by the mid-1980s an attorney in private practice--had convinced Henderson to scuttle investigations of clients.

In the story, Henderson and Crane vehemently denied wrongdoing, with Crane alleging he'd never met Vann and had "no idea what he's [expletive] talking about."

The federal investigation apparently went nowhere; the government never filed allegations of wrongdoing against either Henderson or Crane. Both men have continued successful legal careers in the Los Angeles area.

In July 1985, Henderson and Crane filed a libel suit in California against the Republic, Jerry Vann, Jerry Seper and Darrow "Duke" Tully, then the paper's publisher.

Now, almost ten years later, the case, remarkably, is still pending. What's odd is that neither Henderson nor Crane is claiming lost business, wages or property as a result of Seper's long-forgotten story. Still, the case keeps going and going and going.

In December 1989, the little-publicized lawsuit seemed finished after a federal judge dismissed it.

"The article is a 'fair and true' report of the House Select Committee's proceedings," Judge Edward Rafredie wrote on December 26, 1989, in a 33-page opinion. "A media defendant does not have to justify every word of the alleged defamatory material that is published."

Undaunted, plaintiffs Henderson and Crane appealed the judge's decision. In August 1992, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reinstated a tiny portion of the original lawsuit.

In another twist, the sole remaining issue concerns the Republic's printing of Henderson's and Crane's denials of wrongdoing.

The court's reasoning:
Crane acknowledged in Seper's 1984 story that he and Henderson had spoken about the Justice Department's probe. But in the next paragraph, Henderson is quoted as saying, "This is all news to me."

A reader might infer that Crane or Henderson is lying.
Court records show Seper did not disclose to readers that he'd interviewed Henderson weeks before contacting Crane. Henderson and Crane said under oath later that they'd conferred in the interim, which may have explained the contradictions.

"It is only the most unusual case in which allegations of governmental corruption may provide the basis for a libel suit," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote as part of the Ninth Circuit's 1992 opinion. "This happens to be one of those highly unusual cases.

"Had the Arizona Republic simply reported the allegations of wrongdoing, no matter how untrue, and then related the reactions of the public officials or others involved, no matter how irresponsible, there would be no basis for a lawsuit. It is only the subsequent wholly unjustifiable actions [the unexplained contradictions] that warrant an exception in this case."

Normally, the Republic's longtime attorney, James F. Henderson, would be battling the plaintiffs in court. But not this time. That's because James F. Henderson is the father of James D., one of the men suing the Republic.

"I'm the attorney on this one, not the elder Mr. Henderson," says attorney Dan Barr, who is representing the paper and the other defendants in the protracted matter.

Seper, who now works at the Washington Times, declined to comment. Henderson and Crane did not return calls for comment.

"They're asking for general damages, though there's nothing they can quantify," Barr continues. "We'll just have to see what's up when we finally get to court, though we're confident we will win on the facts."

The case may go to trial in late spring, says a clerk at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. But if history prevails, it probably won't.

"I wouldn't count on it," the clerk says. "This one is like the Energizer bunny.

 
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