A federal district judge in Phoenix threw out a lawsuit Monday that accused The Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica of defaming a government contractor who helped a Chinese national gain access to a counterterrorism center.
The lawsuit stemmed from an August 2014 story published by the two nonprofit newsrooms that revealed an apparent security breach at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, an intelligence center set up by state and local authorities after the 9/11 terror attacks. A Chinese national worked at the facility as a computer programmer for five months in 2007, allowing him access to the Arizona driver’s license database and potentially to a roster of intelligence analysts and investigators.
The contract employee then suddenly returned home to Beijing, taking two laptops and additional hard drives with him. The possible breach, which could have affected as many as 5 million Arizona residents, was not reported to the state’s attorney general.
The Chinese national had been hired by a small Phoenix firm called Hummingbird Defense Systems, which was run by Steve Greschner, an associate of a top official at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. CIR and ProPublica found that Greschner was otherwise an unlikely candidate for a sensitive law enforcement contract, as he had little experience in biometrics and his company hadn’t employed any engineers.
Greschner’s then-girlfriend, a Chinese immigrant who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, said she urged Greschner to hire the Chinese national for the job. The U.S. government later suspected she was a spy, according to a former federal agent, but has not charged her with espionage. A federal district judge revoked her citizenship in 2014. She dropped her appeal last year.
After the article was published, Greschner filed a lawsuit alleging the story was defamatory because, among other reasons, it characterized his company as struggling to get government work and lacking in technical capabilities.
Judge G. Murray Snow granted summary judgement in the case Monday at the request of the news organizations, finding that Greschner – who was representing himself – failed to provide admissible evidence to back up his claims that the reporters were inaccurate or reckless.
Greschner did not respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.
In a statement, Amy Pyle, editor in chief of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, said: “From the beginning, we were confident in the thorough reporting and careful editing of this story by CIR and our partners on it, ProPublica. … We are glad that Judge Snow has agreed.”
Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, said: “We are gratified by the court’s decision in this matter, legally disposing of the last three statements that remained at issue here after the earlier dismissal of most of the statements plaintiff had originally challenged. We have contended from the first that this lawsuit lacked merit and are pleased to see that view confirmed.”
ProPublica and CIR were represented in the case by David Bodney of Ballard Spahr LLP.