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Former Director Lisa William Cleared From Defamation Case; Judge Says Former Treasurer Was A Public Figure
By Tina Traster
A Supreme Court of Rockland County judge has dismissed the case against one of the four defendants accused of defaming a former Pearl River Chamber of Commerce treasurer.
Judge Paul Marx dismissed the suit against Lisa Williams saying the allegations were “inadequately drawn,” and the plaintiff Michelle Worob could not prove that Williams had said the words she was alleged to have uttered. In addition, the judge, in a ruling from the bench on Sept. 27, said Worob’s role as the Chamber’s treasurer made her a “public figure,” and that the bar for a defamation case is higher when a public figure brings a defamation suit.
New York Attorney G. Oliver Koppell, who represented Williams, said “the clear standard of defamation was not met here.”
Koppell said he plans to ask the court to dismiss the case against former director Jenna Fabio too. The attorney has recently been retained to represent former Pearl River Chamber directors Matthew Worgul and Brian Campbell.
Worob in February filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Rockland County against four former directors, claiming their negative public characterizations of her work as treasurer amounted to defamation. In her defamation suit, Worob, owner of Luigi O’Grady’s Deli in Pearl River, alleges Campbell, Worgul, Williams, and Fabio made statements suggesting Worob, who was treasurer from 2011 to 2019, “misappropriated monies for her own benefit and gain.”
Worob, who is seeking $1 million in damages, disputes any allegations of wrongdoing in her role as treasurer and touts her accomplishments over many years with the Chamber in the suit.
After the former directors left, the Chamber’s new directors hired both forensic accountant James DeMinno CPA and South Nyack Attorney Donald J. Feerick Jr. to get to the bottom of the allegations.
In late September, the Pearl River Chamber posted a statement on its Facebook page saying the audit cleared Worob’s name, however neither the Chamber nor their attorney has released the audit.
Koppell said he requested the audit on Aug. 5th but did not get a response from Feerick’s office. Koppell has subpoenaed the forensic accountant for the complete audit results. He said the accountant has until Oct. 29th to comply.
The Chamber’s statement on Facebook said it has “accepted the forensic audit findings for the 2018, 2019, and 2020 fiscal years.” It also states “the audit report and opinion did not find fraud, and that the financial statements are free from material misstatements. The forensic auditor did not identify any instances of fraud or criminal behavior.”
The Pearl River Chamber has refused to provide RCBJ with the actual audit.
Feerick did not respond to a request to view the audit.
Worob resigned in Oct. 2019 and claims she turned over records in Feb. 2020. Defendant Worgul took over as treasurer. Both Campbell and Worgul have said the transition was rocky.
The heart of Worob’s legal complaint takes aim at what she says are comments that have harmed her public reputation. The suit alleges that on April 26, Worob was told by then board member and now Chamber president Susan Perzigian that former president Campbell was making remarks at chamber meetings that Worob’s “handling of the chamber’s funds was suspicious.” According to the suit, Carmel Reilly, Orangetown’s economic development director and Chamber member, said she overheard someone say, “the previous Chamber treasurer wrote a lot of checks to cash that can’t be explained,” and that “Worob can’t be trusted.” Worob attributes these comments to Campbell.
On August 1st, Orangetown Supervisor Teresa Kenny told Worob, the suit alleges, that Campbell made similar comments to her.
And on January 20th, in a phone call with Perzigian and others, Worob alleges Worgul said “there was definitely a misappropriation of funds.”
Worob claims the defendants’ actions “attacked her character, honesty, competence and [affected] her business relationships and wellbeing, causing economic harm and inflicting emotional distress and mental anguish.”
Koppell says Williams was dismissed because there was no specific evidence to suggest that the defendant had uttered accusations against Worob.
“Ms. Worob’s attorney attempted to put the same words in everyone’s mouth, and that attempt on his part is why the case was thrown out,” said Koppell, referring to the Williams’ decision.
Furthermore, Koppell noted that to rise to the definition of defamation, “a defendant must utter something that is false or has a reckless disregard for the truth, or something he knows to be untrue.”
The judge ruled Worob is a public figure, meaning there is a heightened standard to prove defamation.
“We think the judge’s decision vindicates Lisa Williams,” said Koppell. “I think it makes it highly likely that the other defendants will also be vindicated.”