BY IRWIN ANGIKI
The Solomon Star newspaper and veteran journalist Alfred Sasako have lost a $75,000 defamation case to former Customs Comptroller Jim Sutton.
High Court ruled on March 24, 2023 that Solomon Star and Mr Sasako were guilty of defaming Mr Sutton in a string of articles, and ordered they paid Sutton a total of $75,000 in damages.
Fifty thousand dollars was for damages caused by Star and Sasako on Sutton, and a further $25,000 for aggravated damages in their repeated publications of the defamatory materials and their refusal to apologise and retract.
Sasako last week told Island Sun that they would be appealing, although Sutton’s lawyer Andrew Radclyffe said he has not been informed of it yet.
Star and Sasako have 30 days since March 24 to lodge an appeal.
Court heard in its March-7 hearing that four articles were published in the Solomon Star newspaper on dates, September 24, 2021, March 22, 24 and 26, 2022. The articles were also published online.
Sutton had claimed that materials run in the stories about him were ‘untrue and defamatory’, and Star and Sasako pleaded that they were ‘justified in publishing the material and said that the material published was true and in the public interest’.
On September 24, 2021, Star ran a front-page story titled ‘Sutton Under Spotlight’, lining allegations which include:
1) Sutton allegedly breaking the law by opening an unauthorised bank account with BSP and depositing $274,000, which were proceeds five vehicles sold.
2) It also alleged Sutton was investigated for corruption because he had donated vehicles to the office of the Prime Minister.
3) Sutton allegedly was guilty of gross misconduct and sexual harassment.
4) He allegedly breached the Public Finance Management Act by selling a government vehicle and failed to pay the proceeds to the Government.
5) His alleged account allegedly had $4 million, money which allegedly should have gone to the government.
On March 22, 2022, another front page article was published with the title ‘$5M Pay Package for Comptroller of Customs under a three year contract’.
This article alleged Sutton was previously terminated by the Australian government and that he now had a new three year contract with SIG with a tax-free salary of $100,880 per month plus covid-19 allowance of $156,389.34.
Further allegations, ‘in addition to his salary he received a vehicle and hotel accommodation’, court ruling documents said.
On March 24, 2022, another article appeared in the Star, repeating allegations about Sutton’s salary package, covid-19 allowance, vehicle and hotel accommodation.
The fourth article repeated allegations of SIG funding a lucrative three-year contract for Sutton, allegations of sexual harassment, and unaccounted money from vehicle sale.
Despite a letter on March 29, 2022 by Sutton’s lawyer demanding an apology and retraction of defamatory statements, no apology nor retraction was made.
In the court ruling statement, the following excerpts show lack of evidence to support the publications’ allegations.
19. There was no documentary evidence that had reference to the claimant regarding the sale of the vehicles.
20. The contract was not for three years but for one year. The salary was subject to tax at the rate of 40%. There was no allowance for covid-19. The accomodation at the hotel was part of the allowances and not in addition to the allowances.
21. There was no evidence put forward to prove who opened the account into which the proveeds for the sale of the cars was made. There was no evidence that the opening of the account was unathorised. There was no evidence that around $4 million was paid into that account. There was no evidence that the proceeds of the sale of the cars was not paid into the consolidated fund on conviction of the accused in the police investigation.
23. There was no evidence that the claimant had breached section 22(1) [of the public finance management act (PFMA) 2013].
25. The defendants have not provided evidence to prove the truth of the allegation that the claimant had failed to properly account for the proceeds of the vehicles. In particular there was no evidence that the claimant had broken the law as claimed nor any evidence that monies due to the government were not paid to the government. In short, the defence did not prove that the claimant had misapplied or misused government money.
26. There was no evidence that the claimant [Sutton] had breached this section [Section 24 of the PFMA]… No evidence was put forward to prove that he had opened an account at the BSP. There was no evidence that the amount into which the proceeds of the confiscated vehicles was paid had been opened without authorisation.
27. No evidence at all was put forward to demonstrate that the allegations of sexual harassment were true. No evidence was put forward to prove the truth of the allegation that claimant [Sutton] was previously contracted to the Australian government but that contract was terminated following allegations of sexual harassment.
28. No evidence was put forward to prove the truth of the allegations of acts of gross misconduct.
33. No evidence was put forward by the defendants to demonstrate whether the claimant had improved or failed to improve the custom and excise division as he was employed to do…
Commenting on the defamation judgement, Puisne Judge Howard Lawry said, “Freedom of speech is not an absolute right. In the present case the articles were distributing allegations that have not been shown to be true arising from persons described as being ‘disgruntled staff’. The articles were clearly designed to impugn the character of the claimant and to publicly ridicule him.
“The claimant is a very senior public figure … and has been accused of breaking the country’s financial laws, misusing public funds and of sexual harassment has suffered significant harm to his reputation.
“The fact that his contract was relatively short term means that he is dependent on his reputation for future employment or contracts. The damage done to his reputation … entitle him to damages for the harm done.
“For all the defamatory material I consider an award of $50,000 is appropriate. I consider the repeated publication both later publications of the newspaper and online together with the refusal to apologise and the refusal to retract justify an award of aggravated damages.”