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SIRF Wins Lawsuit and Strikes a Sharp Blow for Journalistic Freedom

The Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation has successfully concluded a litigation arising from its September 2014 story on Southern California-based medical device entrepreneur Anthony Nobles.

Readers may recall that the investigation centered on Nobles, a high-profile Ferrari collector whose elaborate Halloween parties are regularly profiled in the press — and whose affluence allowed him to own multiple homes, make large charitable donations and buy a $200,000 ticket on Virgin Galactic‘s first commercial space flight.

Reporting by the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation revealed that Nobles claimed a series of graduate degrees that were likely purchased from a notorious online diploma mill whose founder pleaded guilty to issuing fake diplomas and will be sentenced in November, according to a recent Department of Justice filing.

Additionally, the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation reported that Nobles’ previous efforts with publicly traded companies were mired in controversy and investor litigation.

On Oct. 1 Nobles filed suit against the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation and the two authors of the article, summer intern Keith Larsen and me, alleging defamation and libel per se. In the two weeks between the release of the investigation and the filing of his claim, Nobles never sought any corrections.

Amusingly, to support a claim that I was a reckless reporter, Nobles’ attorney, John van Loben Sels, cited Deep Capture, a website backed by founder Patrick Byrne. The website published a series of articles whose premise is that a wide-ranging conspiracy of hedge fund managers, well-known business reporters and corrupt public officials actively worked together to prevent the commercial success of a prostate cancer drug for the benefit of disgraced 1980s junk bond financier Michael Milken, himself a prostate cancer survivor; I and board member Bethany McLean are portrayed as conspirators.

It wasn’t the most fertile soil for planting a flag: Deep Capture, and Byrne are defending themselves in a Vancouver, Canada-based defamation suit from Ali Nazerali, a Vancouver stock promoter who Mark Mitchell — the site’s primary reporter, as well as a defendant in the suit — had fingered as a key al-Qaida financier. In June, the defense rested without calling any witnesses. The trial resumes in September.

On Nov. 3, Nobles filed a temporary restraining order motion that sought to have the article taken down.

The Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, through its lawyers at Brooks, Pierce in Raleigh, North Carolina, filed a response to the motion on Nov. 5 that argued that Nobles’ filings didn’t meet any of the criteria for granting an injunction. The court agreed and on Nov. 7 United States District Court Judge Louise Flanagan denied Nobles’ motion.

For the next several months both sides waged a battle of legal filings — such as this memorandum of law in opposition to Nobles’ claim — that culminated in Judge Flanagan’s May 8 order bluntly dismissing all of Nobles’ claims, granting the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation what appeared to be a remarkably broad victory. On June 8, however, Nobles’ filed his notice of appeal seeking review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In response, the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation cross-appealed the trial court’s denial of its legal fees.

In late July Nobles’ lawyer reached out to the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation to settle the matter and an agreement was reached: Nobles dropped his appeal and the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation dropped its attempt to collect its fees. Somewhat anticlimactically, it was over, albeit thousands of dollars and a great deal of stress later.