A Loudoun County judge yesterday dismissed a $2 million defamation suit filed against a Leesburg merchant by supporters of Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. -- a decision that LaRouche opponents called a major victory over the political extremist.
Loudoun Circuit Court Judge Carlton Penn declared that Campaigner Publications Inc., which publishes LaRouche's political materials, had no evidence to support its allegation against outspoken LaRouche critic Steve Dabkowski.
The group claimed that Dabkowski had committed slander and libel by telling a Washington television reporter that some pets and farm animals owned by LaRouche opponents had been attacked. Dabkowski said he had blamed no specific group for the attacks.
"By no stretch of the imagination could a reasonable person infer" that Dabkowski's comments were made against Campaigner Publications or other individual LaRouche supporters, Penn said.
Herbert R. Rubenstein, an attorney for Campaigner Publications, said the group is likely to appeal Penn's decision.
Dabkowski's case had become the focus of friction between LaRouche supporters who recently moved their operations to the county and many Loudoun residents, including some public officials who charged that the suit was designed to intimidate opponents of LaRouche. A perennial presidential candidate, LaRouche lives in an estate near Leesburg protected by armed guards.
"This is a victory for those who have said that there is a point that intimidation must be met head-on," said Loudoun Supervisor Frank Raflo. Raflo, a Democrat, and Leesburg Mayor Robert E. Sevila were chairmen of a defense fund that raised $12,000 for Dabkowski's legal fees.
Dabkowski, 29, who operates a video store, made his remarks in February in an exchange with Susan Kidd, a reporter for WRC-TV, before a Loudoun zoning board's decision on Sweetwater Farm. The LaRouche group wanted to operate the controversial summer camp in western Loudoun County for the children of its employes.
"LaRouche opponents have reportedly been harassed in incidents attributed to LaRouche followers, but unproven, have almost become legend in the county," Kidd stated in an interview with Dabkowski, according to court papers.
"A horse was poisoned on someone's property," court papers said Dabkowski responded. "Another dog came home with his tail cut off and his hind legs skinned."
Campaigner Publications President Linda deHoyos complained that Dabkowski's remarks contributed to the zoning board decision to reject plans for the camp and made her children the target of teasing from other children at their school.
The zoning board's rejection of the camp was overturned in Loudoun Circuit Court this month. Campaigner Publications officials denied attacking the animals and have never been charged with the rumored incidents.
"I never said that any member of the LaRouche organization made the attacks," Dabkowski said yesterday. "All I said was that things were happening to people who spoke out."
Dabkowski said yesterday that Penn's decision will help alleviate many county residents' fear of confronting LaRouche.
"A lot of people have been quiet during all this because they are afraid of harassment or being sued. I'm hoping people won't be as scared anymore."
"This is a big victory for all the people of Loudoun County whether they are for LaRouche or against him," said Philip J. Hirschkop, an Alexandria lawyer representing Dabkowski. "It preserves an environment of free speech."
LaRouche, who moved to Loudoun from Manhattan almost three years ago, is known for his shifting, extremist ideology. In March two of his supporters surprised national Democratic leaders when they won Illinois primaries for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.
LaRouche and his supporters, who have accused Raflo and other prominent county residents of being "part of the international drug lobby" and "part of a pro-Moscow nest in the county," have encountered increasing opposition from many Loudoun residents and officials.