A federal judge in Alexandria has upheld a jury's finding in November that right-wing political leader Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. interfered with the NBC television network's news-gathering operation, but reduced the judgment against LaRouche from $3 million to $200,000.
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris also said that LaRouche's testimony that he is almost penniless is "completely lacking in credibility."
LaRouche said in testimony that he has no income, that he has not filed an income tax return for 10 years, and that he does not know who pays for his food, rent on his Loudoun County mansion, or other expenses.
"Contrary to his testimony, LaRouche's lavish life style discussed at trial shows that he lives like a millionaire," Cacheris wrote in his Wednesday ruling.
After a nine-day trial, a federal jury found Nov. 1 that NBC had not libeled LaRouche in two broadcasts last year in which LaRouche was characterized as the head of a "political cult" that harasses critics and is trained in paramilitary tactics.
The six-person jury also found in favor of NBC in a countersuit charging that LaRouche's group tried to sabotage a network interview with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) NBC had alleged that LaRouche followers impersonated an NBC employe and a Senate aide to try to call off the interview. NBC later interviewed Moynihan.
The jury awarded NBC $2,000 in "actual damages" -- the amount the network is supposed to have lost because of LaRouche's actions. The jury also awarded NBC $3 million in "punitive damages" to discourage such activity in the future.
LaRouche appealed the finding that he had interfered with NBC, arguing that the jury acted out of undue emotion after one jury member was excused because of fears for her personal safety.
Cacheris rejected that argument, noting that the jury was "unusually attentive and intelligent."
But Cacheris struck down the $3 million judgment, saying that punitive damages should be reasonably in line with the "actual" damages suffered.
He said that a ratio of 1,500-to-1 between punitive and actual damages, such as the jury had set, was "excessive."
Instead, Cacheris set punitive damages at $200,000. He said LaRouche should be required to pay this "unusually high award" because the allegation that he has tried to interfere with news-gathering is "a very serious charge." LaRouche, Cacheris writes, "attempts to impede and intimidate the press in gathering news."
"The jurors heard many examples of similar harassing tactics employed against reporters who were attempting to do stories about LaRouche," the judge wrote, citing testimony about an NBC reporter in Chicago who, soon after starting research on LaRouche, found flyers in her neighborhood charging she was a call girl.
The judge also ruled that LaRouche's statements that he has almost no assets and that his "friends" support him financially are "completely lacking in credibility." He noted that LaRouche's 1984 presidential campaign spent up to $250,000 for each of a number of campaign television advertisements.
In an effort to show he cannot pay NBC any money, LaRouche said in a recent affidavit that his total assets are $5,000, including $3,700 in cash, some books and record albums, and three guns.
NBC has three weeks to decide whether to accept the $200,000 judgment or have a new trial to set damages. Peter Stackhouse, NBC's attorney, said yesterday he is not certain what the network will do.
But he said NBC is "very gratified that the court . . . found LaRouche is responsible for the interference in its activities."
LaRouche's lawyer, Robert Rossi, said he has no comment on the substance of Cacheris' decision, but said he will recommend appealing it to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond. LaRouche already has appealed his loss in the libel suit to the higher court.