Mayor Joe Fontana makes his annual state-of-the-city address at the London Convention Centre in January 2012.
Credits: MORRIS LAMONT/THE LONDON FREE PRESS/QMI AGENCY
LONDON, ON – A charity headed by London Mayor Joe Fontana has threatened to sue The London Free Press and two city hall bloggers for recent stories and comments about the organization, Fontana and some of his connections.
"We're confident that the articles in The Free Press are fully defensible and any legal proceedings will be defended vigourously,” said Sun Media lawyer Tycho Manson.
All were served a "notice of intended action" under the Libel and Slander Act this week and a demand for apologies for "defamatory statements" and a correction of "misimpressions."
Besides The Free Press, a Sun Media newspaper, the Toronto law firm for the Trinity Global Support Foundation also targeted Gina Barber and Phil McLeod for their blogs, London Civic Watch and The McLeod Report, respectively.
The two bloggers write extensively about city hall business. Barber is a former city politician and McLeod a former Free Press editor-in-chief.
It's unusual for bloggers to be served with such notices, legal observers say. A clue about the move may be found in a comment Fontana recently posted on his mayoral website: "The local daily has been pricked by the summer musings of local bloggers who sit in cool basements."
Fontana did not return messages seeking comment Friday.
In the notice sent to The Free Press, Trinity's lawyer objected to a July 24 article dealing with Fontana and Trinity, a July 28 article about Fontana's business associates and a July 31 editorial.
Fontana is chairperson of Trinity Global and his son Ugo Joseph is president.
The Free Press reported how the senior Fontana, a London MP for 18 years after a stint on city council, was approached in 2008 to join the registered charity founded a year earlier by his boyhood chum Ciccone.
The charity raises funds to feed hungry schoolchildren in Canada and to fight AIDS/HIV in Africa.
Ciccone stepped down after he was charged with fraud and other counts by the Ontario Securities Commission relating to $19-million invested in his Ciccone Group investment firm. A hearing is scheduled for September.
In late 2011, with Fontana at the helm of Trinity, the charity entered a partnership with Global Learning Group and its "gifting initiative" to provide online computer courses to help people upgrade their education and learn trades.
That donation program has been labelled a "sham" by the Canada Revenue Agency, which rejected tax receipts Global issued.
The Free Press also recounted Fontana's connection to Todd Gillick, financial chair of Fontana's 2010 mayoral campaign, who was appointed to the mayor's economic prosperity council and who was fined by the Mutual Fund Dealers Association.
His business ties with Robert Vanier were also recounted along with Vanier's criminal record under another name and allegations of misappropriating money through Onco Petroleum.
Fontana defended his ties to Ciccone and the charity, which he said complies with federal tax laws.
McLeod said Fontana holds London's highest elected office and is required by law and "common practice to ensure he conducts himself in an honest and upright fashion and to be fully accountable to the electorate in how he does that."
Political observers said Fontana's connections outside city hall should be disclosed and the time has come for an integrity commissioner at city hall.
Barber, meanwhile, said she's seeking legal advice.
"The late women's rights advocate Nellie McClung once said: 'Never explain, never retract, never apologize. Just get the thing done and let them howl.' But those were probably less litigious times," she said.
McLeod suggested the notice amounts to a form of legal chill that may discourage public comment.
"By their nature, libel suits do cause journalists to be very careful about what they subsequently report — not that this is necessarily a bad thing,” he said.
“But if the effect is to force someone to back off a story in fear further reportage might bring court action against an opponent with deep pockets, this is a serious consequence for democracy."