July 23, 2012 in Idaho, News

Commenter targeted in lawsuit identifies herself

By The Spokesman-Review
 
NPR Report

See the NPR Report related to this story.

A woman who claims to have posted a comment on a Spokesman-Review blog that triggered a defamation lawsuit has revealed her identity.

Linda Cook said her suggestion to ask Kootenai County Republican Party chairwoman Tina Jacobson about alleged missing money in the Kootenai County GOP coffers, which Cook posted under the moniker “almostinnocentbystander,” was based on information she’d heard from a board member.

“At the time that I said it, I was convinced that it was not false, and it certainly wasn’t said with malice,” said Cook, who’s active in Kootenai County politics and was an aide to the late Idaho Congressman Helen Chenoweth-Hage.

Jacobson sued the anonymous commenter in April and subpoenaed The Spokesman-Review to reveal information that could be used to identify “almostinnocentbystander.” The subpoena also asked for similar information on two commenters who responded to the original comment, posted Feb. 14 on the Coeur d’Alene-based Huckleberries Online blog.

Kootenai County 1st District Judge John Patrick Luster ordered the newspaper on July 10 to reveal the information on the first commenter but not the other two, as well as any correspondence between the commenter and the newspaper.

The decision received national attention and included Luster making the rare distinction between a blogger and a journalist. Luster said he considered Spokesman-Review employee Dave Oliveria, who administers the Huckleberries blog, a blogger, so even if Idaho had a shield law protecting the identities of people who speak to journalists, which it does not, it wouldn’t apply in this case.

Attorneys for the newspaper have until Tuesday to appeal the decision, which Editor Gary Graham said they do not plan to do.

“It would be very unlikely that we would be successful in Idaho,” Graham said.

Cook said she was surprised by Luster’s decision.

“When I asked a rude question that was highlighting a real problem, I did not think that Judge Luster would see that as an assertion that was defamatory,” Cook said. “I thought he would understand that it was a question.”

Now Cook is preparing to address an expected lawsuit from Jacobson.

Cook said she received a call about Kootenai County GOP finances, although she wouldn’t identify the caller, and that person urged her, “‘You can blog about this,’ and they knew I would, because not many are fearless enough to step into that fray.”

She said she fears she doesn’t have money to defend herself against a lawsuit.

“I would say this is exactly what the First Amendment is about,” said Cook, 54, of Rathdrum. “If you know that someone will come and sue you, which is an expensive proposition, but what you’re bringing out is a matter of public interest, shouldn’t you be able to speak anonymously?”

Lawyer C. Matthew Anderson, who is representing Jacobson, said he’s awaiting the court-ordered information from The Spokesman-Review, then will talk to Jacobson about how she wants to proceed.

Cook’s comment, which Oliveria deleted about 2 ½ hours after it was posted, was this: “Is that the missing $10,000 from Kootenai County Central Committee funds actually stuffed inside Tina’s blouse??? Let’s not try to find out.” She commented again: “A whole boat load of money is missing and Tina won’t let anyone see the books. Doesn’t she make her living as a bookkeeper? Did you just see where Idaho is high on the list for embezzlement? Not that any of that is related or anything…”

Anderson said the comment hurt Jacobson’s reputation and prompted her to call for an audit of the committee’s funds. She also had to talk to her employer about the claim.

No problems were found with Jacobson’s financial work, Anderson said.

“This information could have easily been verified by whoever was making the claim, but they chose not to do that,” Anderson said. “That’s not a particularly hard mental concept for me to get around, that if you accuse someone of embezzling money, you better bring your A-game to prove it.”

Cook was featured in The Spokesman-Review in 2007 when she received a $379 tuition reimbursement from North Idaho College after complaining that a part-time instructor spent more time criticizing Republicans than teaching English composition.


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