STATE SENATE RACE: The judge says the case was filed too late and was “lacking any showing of malice.”

10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, March 25, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

A Riverside County judge dismissed a lawsuit Thursday against Supervisor John Benoit over a campaign mailer sent during Benoit’s 2008 Republican state Senate primary.

Bogh Construction, Inc., the family business of Benoit’s GOP opponent, former Inland lawmaker Russ Bogh, sued Benoit and others for libel last month over a mailer by a group called the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association.

The mailers, sent in the weeks before the June 3, 2008 primary, alleged that Bogh used his political connections to steer school construction contracts to the family business.

Judge Sharon J. Waters said the campaign material was mailed in April and May 2008 and the lawsuit was filed beyond the one-year statute of limitations for libel.

Bogh Construction failed to provide evidence proving the mailers harmed the company, Waters said. The case, she said, is “lacking in any showing of malice.”

The judge considered Bogh Construction a limited public figure for the case. Public figures require a higher standard to prove defamation. She awarded Benoit and the other defendants more than $48,000 in legal fees.

Gus Flangas, a Las Vegas-based lawyer for Bogh Construction, argued the information contained in the mailers was patently false. Since the mailers were referenced recently in media reports, Flangas said the clock restarted on the statute of limitations.

But Benoit’s lawyer, Indian Wells-based Brian Harnik, said political speech is constitutionally protected.

He said media reports about the mailers were prompted by the company’s lawsuit. And in court documents, Harnik said the statements in the mailers directly associated with the construction company are not false.

“They can’t prove their case,” Harnik said in an interview outside of court.

Harnik said the lawsuit was strictly political.

He cited James Nygren, a defendant and Benoit’s campaign consultant in 2008, as evidence. Nygren is also the consultant for Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, who is running against Bogh and five others in the April 13 special 37th Senate District election.

The lawsuit remains outstanding against two of the defendants, the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association, and Chris Mann, the group’s president. The two had not yet been served.

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