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Sybert to Continue Libel Suit Against Beilenson : Politics: Judge refuses to throw out the case involving campaign literature. Congressman says flyers are protected by First Amendment.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even though U.S. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson isn’t seeking reelection next year, the 10-term Democratic congressman will still have to fight one last battle with his political nemesis.

Republican Richard Sybert, who lost a close election bid to Beilenson last year, is suing the lawmaker for libel. And a Ventura County judge refused Monday to throw out the case--saying it may have merit, based on the campaign literature she reviewed.

“These flyers contain some pretty nasty allegations and you can’t come away without any imputations to Mr. Sybert,” Superior Court Judge Barbara A. Lane said.

Beilenson’s attorney, Michael Harris, defended the flyers as being “well within the bounds of the hyperbole” typical in political campaigns.

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Beilenson, a Woodland Hills Democrat whose district stretches across the San Fernando Valley into Thousand Oaks and Oak Park, announced last week he would not run in 1996.

Still Sybert said Monday he intends to see the suit through to the end to stop “sleaze-ball and gutter politics.”

“What Beilenson doesn’t understand is that this is not a political lawsuit,” Sybert said. “It’s a lawsuit based on merit. In fact, it damages me to bring up these defaming statements again. It makes me look like I’m guilty of criminal behavior.”

Sybert had filed the lawsuit earlier this year alleging that Beilenson falsely and maliciously besmirched the contender’s reputation last year with campaign mailers. The flyers attacked Sybert for collecting $140,000 in private legal fees while holding a $98,000-a-year, governor-appointed job between 1991 and 1993.

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Sybert announced earlier this year that he will run for Congress again and asked a judge to prevent Beilenson from raising the same claims during the next campaign.

Beilenson’s office dismissed the lawsuit as a political stunt aimed at garnering publicity when it was filed Aug. 31. “In all likelihood, there was a political motivation to it,” Harris said Monday. “Their battle should be fought in the political forum, not the legal forum.”

And now that Beilenson has announced his retirement, some wonder what the point of the suit is now.

“There may be someone else who will want to use the same erroneous statements,” said Charles H. Bell Jr., Sybert’s Sacramento-based attorney.

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The suit also seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Beilenson asked Lane to toss out the suit as frivolous. In his court filings, Beilenson argued that the flyers are protected by the First Amendment.

But Lane said she believed the suit would succeed if Sybert’s allegations are to be believed.

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Bell produced two campaign flyers that accused Sybert of conflict of interest, an ethical lapse and stated that “Rich Sybert ripped off California taxpayers” by representing insurance companies and banks while collecting his yearly salary as director of the state Office of Planning and Research.

“It is certainly inferring that he stole something,” Lane said.

But the Fair Political Practices Committee said in 1991 that Sybert could continue to run his private law practice while serving as one of Gov. Wilson’s top aides.

Beilenson’s attorney Michael Harris argued that the flyers did not accuse Sybert of theft. “All we said is that it was a bad deal for the taxpayers,” Harris said. He argued that the flyers were not malicious nor did the congressman have a “reckless disregard for the truth” --two elements needed to prove libel--when he mailed the brochures in the waning days of the 1994 campaign.

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Beilenson beat the Republican Sybert by 3,600 votes in a bitter and contentious campaign last year.


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