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Judge Rejects Bernson Libel Suit Against Landfill Firm : Courts: The councilman accused Browning-Ferris Industries of leaking false information to the media during his reelection bid.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge Thursday dismissed a lawsuit by City Councilman Hal Bernson alleging that a Granada Hills landfill operator libeled him by leaking false information to news reporters about his use of public and private funds for travel.

Judge Gary Klausner threw out Bernson’s suit against Browning-Ferris Industries, a BFI executive and two consultants after the firm’s attorney argued that a one-year statute of limitations on filing libel actions had expired. The suit sought $20 million in damages.

BFI has long been at odds with Bernson and residents living near the firm’s Sunshine Canyon garbage dump in Granada Hills. Last year, Bernson helped persuade city officials to sue BFI and Los Angeles County to block a proposed 200-acre expansion of the dump, which straddles the city-county border.

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Bernson charged in his libel suit that BFI, its vice president Les Bittenson, and political consultants Lynn Wessel and Mark Ryavec compiled and leaked a 19-page dossier falsely saying that Bernson repeatedly double-billed the city and his private campaign kitty for extensive personal travel.

The legal action was filed several months after Bernson, a 14-year incumbent, eked out a 746-vote victory in an acrimonious race against school board member Julie Korenstein in June, 1991. In the final days of the campaign, BFI paid more than $13,000 for anti-Bernson phone-bank and precinct-walking operations.

Bernson declined comment Thursday. His attorney, Neil Papiano, denied that the suit was intended as retaliation for BFI’s political activities. He said Bernson will appeal.

BFI lawyer Steven Weston declined to speculate on Bernson’s motives for suing, but noted that his suit was filed after BFI applied for city permission to expand its Granada Hills dump.

“BFI was deeply troubled by the suit because they felt it was improper and brought to embarrass them . . . It certainly hasn’t helped their relations with the city,” said Weston.

Weston said BFI, Bittenson and Wessel--whom he represented--had nothing to do with the dossier and that he has no idea who prepared it. Ryavec, who was paid by BFI to lobby city officials and community groups in favor of the dump expansion, has previously denied involvement.

Papiano complained that the judge’s decision was based on “illogical” case law, which requires plaintiffs to sue within one year even if they can’t identify the person who allegedly libeled them.

He insisted that BFI paid for and disseminated the dossier, but that Bernson didn’t discover the alleged link until he “conducted his own investigation” more than a year after the report was distributed to reporters.

At the time the suit was filed in January, Papiano said that the travel report had been passed in late 1988 or early 1989 to several Los Angeles television stations and newspapers, including The Times.

Papiano said Bernson’s political career and personal reputation were damaged as a result of news stories Papiano contended were based on the dossier, and that the veteran councilman was forced to drop efforts to explore a 1994 race for lieutenant governor.

Bernson was widely criticized in newspaper reports for spending lavish amounts of privately raised campaign funds on travel in the late 1980s. Among the places he went were Paris, Hong Kong, Italy, London, Beijing, Israel, Canada and U.S. cities, including New Orleans and Hilo, Hawaii.

Bernson denied that his travel expenses were excessive but sharply reduced them in the wake of those stories.

In 1990, The Times reported that from 1987 to 1989, Bernson spent more than $120,000 in campaign funds on travel--far more than anyone else on the 15-member City Council--often flying first-class and staying at expensive hotels. His spending was nearly three times as high as Mayor Tom Bradley’s and exceeded that of then-Gov. George Deukmejian during that period.

Two Times reporters who wrote that article examined the dossier but concluded that it contained no demonstrable examples of double-billing of public and private funds. The report, which was unsigned, appeared to be based on public documents.

Bernson’s travels emerged as a campaign issue in his hard-fought reelection battle with Korenstein last year. At one point, she attacked his spending at a news conference outside a pricey Italian restaurant in Northridge where, according to public records, Bernson ate numerous meals paid for by privately raised campaign funds.

Bernson’s suit said he suffered “great upset, shock, mental suffering . . . shame, humiliation and embarrassment” as a result of the dossier.

It said his cancellation of exploratory plans for the lieutenant governor’s race “injured both his personal and professional reputation and career,” and that he has since spent “considerable time and finances to rehabilitate and restore his character.”


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