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In libel suit, McPhilemy wins round in D.C. court

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST — Roberts Rinehart, the U.S. publishers of the controversial book "The Committee," and its author, Sean McPhilemy, have won a significant round in their legal battle against two Northern Ireland businessmen, Albert and David Prentice.

The Portadown-based Prentice brothers are suing McPhilemy and Roberts Rinehart in a Washington, D.C., court for $100 million. The brothers were named in McPhilemy’s "The Committee, Political Assassination in Northern Ireland."

The book said that the brothers were members of a loyalist murder conspiracy, comprising members of the RUC, other businessmen, solicitors, Protestant ministers, UDR men and loyalist multiple murderers.

Last week, a Washington judge ruled in favor of 53 out of 57 discovery demands from lawyers representing McPhilemy and his publishers for disclosure of documents relating to the Prentices’ business interests and their public-relations status.

The judge also rejected the Prentices’ request that any required searching or copying be done at the defendants’ expense. It’s estimated that the brothers’ libel action has cost them up to $2 million to date and the latest ruling will increase that figure substantially. The case has also been a significant financial drain on the publishers.

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In their defense, McPhilemy and his publishers are seeking to establish that the wealthy Prentice brothers, who own and run several car dealership and property development companies, are — in legal terms — "public figures" and cannot sue as private individuals.

If McPhilemy and Roberts Rinehart succeed in this defense, under U.S. law the Prentice brothers will be forced to prove that the defendants deliberately published untrue facts about them in "The Committee" knowing them to be lies.

Roberts Rinehart’s New York-based lawyer, Russell Smith, said he was "very gratified that the court seems to agree with us that if the Prentices are unwilling to shoulder the burdens of being libel plaintiffs, they should reconsider their continuation of this lawsuit."

Under the latest court ruling, the Prentice brothers will also have to disclose details of money Albert Prentice admittedly paid to the wife of their nephew, LVF leader Mark "Swinger" Fulton, who is currently serving a jail sentence in Maghaberry prison for weapons offenses.

They will have to give details also of a case of religious discrimination brought against one of Albert Prentice’s companies by a Catholic man who claims he was intimidated in a car showroom by sectarian slogans and other discriminatory activities.

They will also have to give details and produce all related documents concerning a controversial property development deal in Belfast, which they undertook on behalf of the British government, in the Markets area of the city that was opposed by a 100,000-signature petition because of its proximity to St. Malachy’s Catholic church.

The court’s order stands in contrast to a previous ruling this year in which a motion by the Prentice brothers to force McPhilemy to produce his journalistic notes and files was denied.

Meanwhile, the British Sunday Times newspaper has claimed that a former member of one of the most secret units in the British Army has admitted it destroyed evidence by burgling and burning the operations center of an investigation into collusion with loyalists.

The paper claims a breaking-and-entry team from the British Army’s intelligence wing carried out the raid at the heart of a fortified RUC station in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim.

It says that their target was John Stevens, the high-level police officer who was investigating links between the British Army/RUC and loyalist murders. Stevens is now in charge of the reopened case into the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989.

The report also says that RUC intelligence officers knew the cause of the late-night "mystery fire" that gutted Stevens’s top-floor operations room on Jan. 10, 1990.

— Ray O’Hanlon in New York contributed to this story.

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