Judge dismisses Condit lawsuit against author

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has thrown out former San Joaquin Valley congressman Gary Condit's defamation lawsuit against author Dominick Dunne, extending the one-time lawmaker's costly courtroom losing streak.

In a 22-page opinion issued this morning, U.S. District Judge Peter Leisure summarily dismissed Condit's suit and ruled the First Amendment as well as California law protected Dunne's expressions of opinion. The ruling further shrinks Condit's legal maneuvering room.

"I'm just delighted," Dunne's attorney Paul LiCalsi said Tuesday. "This was an abusive lawsuit all along."

Condit's lawsuit revolved around public speculations about the nature of his relationship with former Washington, D.C. intern Chandra Levy. Condit and his wife Carolyn have filed roughly half-a-dozen related defamation lawsuits since 2001, the year Levy's disappearance drew fevered national attention.

None of the lawsuits have gone to trial. Several were settled privately, while others were dismissed outright.

Levy's remains were found in Washington's Rock Creek Park in 2002. Her murder has never been solved and police have not identified any suspect. Nonetheless, public speculators — including Dunne — have filled the tabloids and airwaves with assorted theories about what might have transpired.

Condit does not deny media reports that he eventually told investigators he had been sexually involved with Levy, who was raised in Modesto and was about three decades his junior. In public, though, he remains discrete.

"Everything I knew about Chandra, I told them," Condit, who is now 60, said in an extended interview published recently by California Conversations magazine. "I did a lot more than anyone else would to appease the law enforcement people."

The long-time San Joaquin Valley politician, first elected to the House in 1989, further said he "did not have a romantic relationship" with Levy. When asked whether the relationship was sexual, Condit declared the matter was "none of your business."

Dunne, whose own daughter was murdered in 1982, began following the Levy case as part of his long-standing fascination with crime and power. He settled an earlier defamation lawsuit filed by Condit in March 2005. Then, in November 2005, Dunne circled back to Condit while appearing on CNN's Larry King Live.

"I think he knows more about what did happen than he has ever said," Dunne told guest interviewer Bob Costas.

Under prodding, Dunne further made brief mention of a since-discounted story involving a "horse whisperer who supposedly knew something about Levy's disappearance.

Condit sued again in November 2006, claiming Dunne's statements inferred he was hiding something from police.

The First Amendment generally protects raw opinion, so long as it does not appear to be built on a false and defamatory statement of fact.

"Dunne's opinion statements do not, either in substance or in implication, constitute provably false assertions of fact," Leisure wrote in dismissing the case, adding that "Dunne does not suggest that his opinion statements are based on any additional facts not known to the public."

The new ruling comes one year after an Arizona state judge dismissed a separate lawsuit filed by Condit against the weekly Sonoran News. The judge also ordered Condit to pay $43,680.42 for filing a frivolous suit.

"The Sonoran News is currently in the process of enforcing its judgment," the newspaper's attorney, Daniel Barr, said Tuesday.

Barr added that expects a lien will be attached on California property still owed by the Condit family.

Similar charges dog Condit in the Dunne case, where Dunne's attorneys retain the option of seeking financial sanctions against the attorney who first filed the lawsuit. That attorney later conceded the case lacked merit. Conceivably, that attorney could face fines.

"We haven't made a final decision on that yet," LiCalsi said.

Since leaving Congress in January 2003, Condit and his wife relocated to Arizona. The Condit family ran two Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores, but have since been sued by the company over alleged management failures. A one-day civil trial concluded in October, and a ruling is pending.