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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Alfa Loses Libel Suit in U.S. Court

bloombergPyotr Aven
WASHINGTON -- Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, two of Russia's richest men, lost a libel suit in a U.S. court over an Internet article alleging they had connections to organized crime and narcotics trafficking.

Judge John Bates ruled on Tuesday in Washington that the allegations were not published with what is called actual malice, which U.S. law requires in libel suits filed by public figures. The statements were published online by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based government ethics watchdog founded by former "60 Minutes" producer Charles Lewis.

"Although defendants' actions are not above reproach, they do not rise to the level of actual malice that the Constitution demands in order to preserve a vibrant exchange of ideas," the federal judge said in dismissing the lawsuit.

The action stemmed from an article published on the center's web site just before the 2000 Republican National Convention. It said Halliburton benefited from billions of dollars in federal contracts when Dick Cheney, nominated at the convention as candidate for U.S. vice president, ran the company in the 1990s.

Halliburton received funds from a U.S. Export-Import Bank loan to Russia's Tyumen Oil Co., or TNK, which the article alleged had connections to organized crime and drug trafficking funds.

Aven, president of Alfa Bank, a unit of TNK's parent company Alfa Group, and Fridman, chairman of TNK, sued claiming the center defamed them. They said the story's writers, Knut Royce and Nathaniel Heller, who were also named in the suit, made a series of errors in their haste to get the article published before the convention.

Bates ruled that while mistakes were made, the story did not reflect actual malice -- publication "with knowledge that it was false, or reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

That is what a public figures must prove to win a libel suit in the United States when false, damaging material about them is published. The court ruled Aven and Fridman were public figures for purposes of the suit.

The article remains on the Center for Public Integrity's web site.

Royce, now semi-retired, said he was satisfied with the ruling.

"It was not a pleasant process," Royce said in an interview. "I feel that a huge burden has been lifted."

Katie King, a spokeswoman for the Center for Public Integrity, could not be reached for comment.

Daniel Joseph, a partner with the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington who represented Aven and Fridman, said that because of the time difference with Russia, he had not been able to speak with his clients about whether or not they will appeal.