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NPA directors ordered to pay $100K in costs to ex-mayor after defamation lawsuit backfired

Judge says defamation claim had substantial merit, but plaintiffs did not prove they were harmed
Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart | Photo Dan Toulgoet

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ordered seven current and former NPA board members to pay ex-Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart $100,000 in costs, but not damages, after Stewart thwarted their defamation lawsuit last summer. 

Justice Wendy Baker threw out the claim from David Mawhinney, Christopher Wilson, David Pasin, Phyllis Tang, Angelo Isidorou, Federico Fuoco and Wesley Mussio in July 2022 under the Protection of Public Participation Act.

Baker ruled that Stewart acted in the public interest when he issued a news release in early 2021 alleging NPA members had ties to the alt-right. The parties made written submissions to Baker on costs last fall. 

Baker wrote in her March 20 decision that although the defamation claim had substantial merit, the plaintiffs did not prove they were harmed and Stewart did not make the statements with malice. Stewart alleged the action was brought in bad faith or for an improper purpose.

“I do not agree that Mr. Stewart could be characterized as a smaller and more vulnerable party than the NPA directors. Similarly, I do not agree that the NPA could be properly characterized as a large and powerful entity,” Baker ruled. “Nevertheless, it is clear that the NPA and Mr. Stewart were in a political competition, and the filing of this notice of civil claim did serve to limit Mr. Stewart’s political expression from the time he learned of the claim in February 2021, until this claim was dismissed in the summer of 2022, a state of affairs which could easily be seen as politically advantageous to the plaintiffs and the NPA.”

The judge agreed with Stewart that the plaintiffs caused distress when they made conflict of interest allegations against three different sets of lawyers Stewart hired. There was no application to disqualify Stewart’s third lawyer, David Sutherland. 

“The positions taken by the plaintiffs in relation to Mr. Stewart’s choice of counsel certainly increased Mr. Stewart’s costs, and caused him anxiety,” Baker wrote. "I am satisfied that the plaintiffs took the positions they did for strategic reasons, in an inappropriate attempt to limit and thwart Mr. Stewart’s defence.”

Baker said the issue in deciding costs was whether the plaintiffs’ case was about reputation and public expression or whether it was a strategic lawsuit against public participation. She ruled it was the latter.

"In light of the fact that I have ordered full indemnity costs in favour of Mr. Stewart which he states, in his affidavit sworn Sept. 19, 2022, total in excess of $100,000, I find it would not be appropriate to order damages in favour of the defendant. I am satisfied that the full indemnity costs I have ordered fully addresses any harm to Mr. Stewart arising from this action.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer Karol Suprynowicz, a partner at Mussio’s firm, has not responded for comment. 

In the court of public opinion, however, both sides of the case lost in the Oct. 15 civic election. 

Former NPA candidate Ken Sim defeated Stewart for the mayoralty in a landslide. None of Stewart’s Forward Together candidates was elected to city council. 

The NPA was similarly shut out. Even its only incumbent, Melissa De Genova, was defeated when Sim’s ABC Vancouver won all but three seats on city council. 

Leaks from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service reported in The Globe and Mail suggest Stewart’s campaign suffered from meddling by Tong Xiaoling, China’s former consul general. 

NPA mayoral candidate John Coupar quit just over two months before election day and was replaced by parachute candidate Fred Harding, a former West Vancouver Police officer who lives in Beijing and promotes Vancouver real estate to Chinese investors. 

The most media attention Harding and the NPA team got during the election period was when a Provincial Court judge allowed them to use Chinese characters beside their names on the ballot.