Trump Donor Who Propped Up His $2 Billion Hotel Business With $96 Million In COVID Loans Threatens Website For Publishing Facts And Opinions
from the once-again,-'hurt-feelings'-is-not-an-actionable-claim dept
Being defensive when criticized is a very human trait. It’s often the default response. And it’s completely understandable. Very few people can suppress the urge to defend themselves — or engage in retaliation — when (as Tom Wolfe put it) their ego is stripped of its virginity. Like I said, it’s a wholly human response.
But when the target of criticism runs a multibillion-dollar trifecta of companies, kneejerk reactions should be tempered by the better judgment of presumably expensive legal teams who are there to do exactly this: cushion the blows of online criticism and temper the responses of their aggrieved employer.
Monty Bennett — a Trump donor with $2.2 billion in combined revenue from his hospitality holdings last year — decided his businesses were small enough to grab some of the “small business” loans the government floated when the hospitality business fell off the cliff during the first few months of the COVID epidemic.
As the coronavirus ravaged the United States, the pseudonymous “Doktor Zoom” wrote a highly critical post for Wonkette about Monty Bennett, the billion-dollar businessman who complained about being able to claim “only” $96 million in relief funds. Combining an amazing blend of resentment and entitlement, Bennett wrote a blog post complaining about the government’s alleged unwillingness to foot more of the bill for big business like his.
Meanwhile, Bennett — the self-proclaimed victim of regulation and small business loan restrictions — did this:
Bennett’s companies brought in a combined revenue of $2.2 billion last year, but because of the Rona Recession, the hotels have furloughed or outright laid off 95 percent of their more than 7,000 employees. It’s all so upsetting to Bennett that he’s had to console himself with some great big bonuses, plus huge dividends from his preferred stock.
While 7,000 employees went without work, Bennett took home a little over $3 million in salary and bonuses. Sure, it was a huge reduction from his 2019 total of nearly $7 million, but landing on a few million in pre-tax income is far preferable to having no pre-tax income at all, like nearly 100% of his employees.
This hurt Bennett’s feelings. And it appears his companies’ legal department is either incapable or unwilling to talk Bennett out of making things worse for himself. Legal threats have been issued to Doktor Zoom and Wonkette.
Last week, your beloved Wonkette received a very serious letter accusing us of ALL THE LIBELSLANDER.
Monty was, apparently, VERY UPSET that we wrote true, mean things about him. SO upset, in fact, that, 16 months after Dok’s post, he decided to have Holland & Knight partner Stephen Rasch (aka expensive big-firm lawyer) send us a letter, accusing us of defiling his good name.
If you want to draw attention to how much of a grifter and asshole you are, baseless legal threats over true facts is a great way to do it, as Wonkette’s Jamie Lynn Crofts (who happens to also be a 1st Amendment lawyer) points out:
You presumably came to our website at least once, to read all of the mean, true things you complain about in your letter. So you should have at least some concept of Wonkette’s tone.
Even without doing a cursory google to see how we might respond to letters such as this, did the words “Streisand Effect” really never once come to mind?
But, again, thank you. Truly. Last week was a very hard week and I was in great need of a little comic relief. And a defamation accusation containing such gems as the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “sleazy” was exactly what I needed.
The whole letter [PDF] is the kind of blustery bullshit we’ve covered countless times here at Techdirt. When the facts are against you, release the paper tigers to pound the tables, I guess. The enjoyment lawyer Stephen Rasch may have wrung out of writing these sentences will be the last fun he has if he chooses to continue harassing Wonkette, or decides he and his client might want to have their ass kicked in court.
The article states that Mr. Bennett “exploit[ed] the ‘small’ business loan program” and that his actions were “sleazy as fuck.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “sleazy” is defined to mean “sordid, corrupt, or immoral.” Mr. Bennett and Ashford neither “exploited” the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) nor acted in a sordid, corrupt, or immoral manner.
Thanks, Doctor Dictionary. I’m sure Wonkette and Doktor Zoom knew what the word “sleazy” meant when they used it. Quoting the dictionary using law firm letterhead doesn’t make it any more actionable.
I won’t dissect any more of this truly stupid letter, because Wonkette has already done this. Here’s the big-money lawyer saying things about defamation:
Wonkette falsely asserts that Ashford constitutes “a single business pretending it’s several smaller businesses.” That statement is factually and legally false. Ashford, Inc., Ashford Hospitality Trust, Inc., and Bracmer Hotels and Resorts are separate and legally distinct entities. Additionally, the hotel properties within the Ashford portfolio are owned by entities separate from Ashford.
Here’s Wonkette’s legal expert, deftly pointing out just how ridiculous this claim is, using the law firm’s own words to prove Wonkette’s point:
I find it truly fascinating that the letter you sent us refers to Monty’s business empire as “the Ashford portfolio,” but you would like to make sure we affirmatively note that companies named things like “Ashford, Inc.” and “Ashford Hospitality Trust, Inc.” are, technically, separately and legally distinct entities.
That’s just part of it. The whole threat letter is worth reading for its inadvertent hilarity. The Wonkette response is worth reading in full for its deliberate hilarity, as well as its deliberate humiliation of a lawyer apparently being paid enough to suppress his better judgment. The opinions (like “sleazy”) are opinions. The facts delivered by Wonkette are factual. And whatever developments may have happened after the April 2020 post cannot be held against Wonkette, which was reporting on known facts at the time of publication.
Oh! And it appears we were supposed to predict that, at some point after our post was published, Monty would be publicly shamed into returning the PPP loan money and rehiring some people?
[Threat letter] “Further, Ashford subsequently returned all of the PPP loan funds and rehired many furloughed employees.”
Can I get your psychic’s number? It sounds like you might have a good one. And I am definitely very sure this was all out of the goodness of Monty’s heart and had nothing to do with the slew of stories about what a piece of garbage he is. (I’m sorry. That was mean to garbage.)
If anyone needs to retract anything, it’s Monty Bennett and his legal reps, who were apparently convinced to act against Bennett’s interests by the guy paying their retainer, who I can only assume signs his name “Monty Bennett.” But this may be just the sort of stupidity Holland & Knight — last seen at Techdirt abandoning its defense of First Amendment rights in the face of pressure from Florida governor Ron DeSantis — enjoys engaging in.
Unfortunately, even extremely stupid lawsuits are a drain on those defending themselves from baseless claims. And it’s unclear where the law firm might decide to pursue this lawsuit (it’s located in Texas but Wonkette’s owner, Commie Girl Industries, is located in Montana), which is yet another reason why a federal anti-SLAPP law is needed to make it easier for everyone involved to utilize the same rules and — even better — discourage plaintiffs without actionable claims from draining the resources of entities that never defamed them.