Experts: District's CFO likely to win libel suit

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Photo - D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. (Examiner file photo)
D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi. (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Alan Blinder

Despite the size -- $3 million -- of the libel lawsuit against him, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi has good odds of never paying a penny, legal experts say.

"Typically, government officials themselves are not responsible in lawsuits for defamation," said Charles Tobin, a Holland & Knight attorney who specializes in libel law. "There are all kinds of immunities that attach to the performance of their jobs."

Eric Payne, a former contracting official in Gandhi's office, sued Gandhi and the District this week, alleging that the CFO made "mean-spirited, ill-willed and malicious" statements about him.

Payne was fired in 2009, but the circumstances of his dismissal remain the subject of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Gandhi has said Payne was fired for poor management skills, but Payne says he was terminated because he resisted political pressure to change the District's lottery contract.

"As a proximate result of Gandhi's publishing the false and defamatory statements, an already emotionally vulnerable and economically victimized Payne was further victimized," Payne's lawsuit said.

Even if he wasn't a public official, one lawyer said, Gandhi could still be shielded from liability.

"There is some privilege to make fair comment about an ongoing legal proceeding, so Gandhi is speaking as a spokesperson for the entity that got sued," said Dori Ann Hanswirth, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells who has handled defamation cases. "He is completely justified to state his opinion."

Payne, who has said he consistently received positive performance reviews, dismissed the criticisms.

"As a licensed attorney, I would not have filed this claim in good faith if I did not think it was proper or appropriate," Payne said. "Any discussion in advance of a court ruling is all speculative."

Gandhi is not the first D.C. official to face a slander suit.

In 2003, a former city investigator sued Adrian Fenty, then a councilman, for defamation. A federal judge dismissed that claim, though, because Fenty had "acted within the scope of his employment" as a public official and enjoyed immunity.

That case took years to resolve, and Tobin predicted the Gandhi case would be no different.

"The District is a very tenacious litigant," Tobin said. "If it feels that this is a matter of principle, it will fight this case for a long time."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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