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Pittsburgh Jury Finds That Willis Carto and Liberty Lobby Libeled the Populist Party and Don Wassall

by Paul Richert

A fight for justice that dragged on for over six years ended in triumph and vindication, as a federal jury in Pittsburgh on October 30, 1997 held unanimously that the Populist Party National Committee and its National Chairman, Don Wassall, had been libeled by Liberty Lobby and The Spotlight newspaper. The jury awarded $100,000 in damages to Wassall and $2 million in damages to the Populist Party.

It took a long time and many nearly impossible hurdles had to be overcome to reach this great day of victory. Few understood the complicated legal travails that were involved, and fewer still thought Wassall and the Populist Party had any chance to win. It can only be said that it took a tremendous amount of perseverance against great odds for a number of years --- but it was a battle that had to be fought and it was well worth it in the end.

To understand the ending --- a jury awarding Wassall and the Populist Party $2.1 million for damages as a result of being libeled and the Populist Party effectively destroyed --- it is necessary to go back to the beginning and explain what happened and why:

The Populist Party of the United States was organized nationally in 1984. It was headquartered in the offices of Liberty Lobby, Inc., a purported congressional lobby based in Washington, D.C. that was in reality defunct as a lobby even then, as it remains to this day, but which published The Spotlight, an influential weekly paper that enjoyed a large amount of credibility within many patriotic circles. The Spotlight at that time had a circulation of over 200,000, and the Populist Party got off to a fast start in 1984, raising some $1 million by year’s end. The party ran former Olympic gold medalist Bob Richards for president, and succeeded in getting Richards on the ballot in 14 states.

However, the party was doomed almost as soon as it began, as a result of the actions of the shadowy figure who secretly owns Liberty Lobby, Willis Carto. Richards, the Populist Party’s presidential candidate, refused to be dictated to by Carto, and as a result, Carto, who is the actual editor of The Spotlight although his name appears nowhere in the paper’s masthead, essentially blacked out Richards, with coverage in The Spotlight soon focusing solely on Richards' running mate, Maureen Salaman.

The litigious Carto ended up suing Richards, and then sued the Executive Committee of the Populist Party of the U.S. when it refused to pay Carto some $250,000 in non-existent debts Carto claimed was owed to Liberty Lobby and other Carto-owned groups. Carto began a series of vicious attacks in The Spotlight on Bill Shearer, the man who led the party’s Executive Committee in standing up to Carto. Honorable men such as Bill Baker, the party’s founding national chairman, quit in disgust at Carto’s destructive behavior. As a result, a party that had started off with great possibilities and high morale was utterly ruined within a year.

Others were determined to keep the concept of the Populist Party alive. Various state affiliates remained active. Most notable was the Populist Party of Pennsylvania, which organized in the summer of '85, and which by the end of 1986 was running balloted candidates for office and in other ways was giving life back to the Populist Party, including through the publication of a state newsletter, The Populist Observer, which was gaining national notice.

In December of 1986, Willis Carto and his employee, Michael Collins Piper, jointly called Don Wassall of Pittsburgh, who was the chairman of the Populist Party of Pennsylvania and editor of The Populist Observer, and asked him to become National Chairman of a newly reorganized Populist Party. Wassall declined, not wanting to become involved at that level. Instead it was eventually agreed that Wassall would become Executive Director, with Tom McIntyre, a likeable Populist Party supporter from Pittsburgh who had run for office as a Populist and who was friends with Wassall, becoming the figurehead chairman with Wassall actually performing many of the functions of the chairman’s position to help out McIntyre, who held a full-time job as an electrician.

With that new configuration at the top, the Populist Party of America formed on the national level in early 1987. The new national headquarters was based in Pittsburgh. Most of the leaders of the Populist Party of America had been involved in the previous, now-defunct Populist Party of the United States as second-tier leaders or supporters, along with Willis Carto, who was on the Party’s new Executive Committee as a member but not as one of the officers. It must be said that when the new Populist Party formed, in spite of the quick demise of the previous Populist Party, virtually everyone thought that Willis Carto was an individual who possessed both integrity and good intentions toward the populist/nationalist movement in America. Unfortunately, the new leaders were to learn the hard way that Carto possesses neither.

The Populist Party of America started off in 1987 with a tiny fraction of the number of members of the previous, 1984 party, because of the great disillusionment caused by its demise. But, with solid management and able leadership, the Party grew quickly and steadily. By the end of 1990, the Populist Party of America had grown more than 330%, virtually all 50 states had active Populist Party affiliates, and more candidates had run for office each year and were receiving better and better percentages of the vote, to the point that in 1990 Populist Party candidates received an average of 8% of the vote, a superb performance for a third party.

At the end of 1990 the Populist Party had many capable leaders, like Tom Parker of Texas, Bill Chandler of Arizona, Phil Chesler of Missouri, Howard Fields of Colorado, John Justice of Illinois, Bob Blumetti of New York, Vic Sestokas, Randolph Waller and John Kucek of New Jersey, and many others. Terrific momentum was building and great things seemed to be on the verge of happening in the 1990s. But that all quickly changed.

In March of 1989, right before that year’s national convention, Willis Carto had voluntarily withdrawn from the Populist Party. Party leaders had grown weary of Carto and his contrary ways. Matters culminated when Carto did his best to sabotage the 1989 Populist Party national convention, by dissuading the two scheduled main speakers, Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona and then-newly elected Louisiana legislator David Duke, from appearing, instead insisting that the keynote speaker be the notorious washed-up leftist, Gene McCarthy. The party’s Executive Committee, led by Wassall, rightfully stood up to Carto and his destructive actions, and Carto, seeing that the party would no longer tolerate his style of leadership, withdrew from the party, writing a vindictive resignation letter which said in party, In my view, the present problem has been caused by Don [Wassall's] rejection of former [sic] liberal senator Gene McCarthy, whom I had scheduled to come for nothing.

After Carto left, the Populist Party continued to prosper and grow at an amazing rate. But two years after Carto left the Party, beginning with the February 11, 1991 issue of The Spotlight, Carto decided to try to destroy the Populist Party of America, much as he had destroyed the 1984 Populist Party of the United States, through regular libelous attacks impugning the reputation of Wassall, who had by this time been elected National Chairman. A Carto crony who was about to leave the Executive Committee, a sleazy infiltrator named Van Loman, told Carto and his employee Mike Piper that neither Wassall nor the Populist Party had the financial resources to hire an attorney to sue them for libel, so, armed with this information, the attacks against Wassall in The Spotlight became even more outrageous and damaging.

However, Carto and his small group of paid henchmen overplayed their hand, to the point that various attorneys became interested in suing Carto on behalf of Wassall and the Populist Party National Committee on a contingency basis. The most impressive of these attorneys seemed to be Jeffrey DeCaro, who was a senior partner with a high-powered D.C.-area firm, who represented himself to be an experienced libel attorney who was eager to take the case. Thus DeCaro was hired in July of 1991 on behalfof Wassall and the Party’s National Committee to prosecute a libel suit against Carto and several other individual and corporate defendants.

Suffice it to say that the hiring of DeCaro soon proved to be a nightmare almost beyond belief. Whether he was paid off by Carto or someone else, or for reaons yet unknown, DeCaro began committing gross malpractice almost from the day he was hired. DeCaro refused to serve the lawsuit in several of the defendants, even though they worked at the Liberty Lobby Building in the heart of Washington, D.C., and entered and exited the building virtually every work day. DeCaro continually missed legal deadlines, misrepresented his intentions, filed motions in the wrong case, and otherwise committed malpractice in numerous ways.

When it became clear that DeCaro was committing malpractice and was not to be taken seriously, Carto filed a nuisance lawsuit against Wassall, the Populist Party, The Populist Observer newspaper, and virtually all of the individual national leaders of the Party, claiming $35 million in damages as a result of the Party exposing Carto and his agenda. Incredibly, DeCaro failed to file an answer to the countersuit on time, and default judgments were entered against most of those Carto had named as defendants in his nuisance suit.

The case dragged on for two and a half years while DeCaro did nothing to move the suit forward and Carto and his lawyers did everything possible to delay the case from going to trial. Eventually, in January of 1994, a federal judge dismissed the libel suit filed on behalf of Wassall and the Populist Party due to DeCaro’s lack of prosecution, a harsh sanction taken against an attorney by a court only under extreme circumstances. All through 1991, 1992 1993 and beyond as the libel case against Carto stagnated due to DeCaro’s gross malpractice and was eventually dismissed, Carto, through his Spotlight, continued to libel Wassall and the Populist Party on a regular basis.

As one can imagine, the Populist Party operated under extremely disadvantageous circumstances after early 1991. Many if not most Populist Party members were Spotlight readers, and as a result the Party lost about two-thirds of its supporters virtually overnight, causing a major financial rupture in its operations. The failure of DeCaro to do his job and restore the reputations of Wassall and the Party by moving their libel suit along, ensured that the financial hemorrhaging continued, and the Party’s financial structure by 1995 became untenable.

The Populist Party went into debt in 1991 and could never get out of it. Nevertheless, the Party’s leaders struggled heroically to keep the Party alive, in the hope that the situation would turn around eventually. The Populist Party in 1992 ran retired Lt. Col. James Bo Gritz for president, the most decorated hero of the Vietnam War. Gritz was on the ballot in 18 states and received well over 100,000 votes in '92 more than double what David Duke had received as the Party’s 1988 presidential candidate, and better than all other third parties --- including the Libertarians --- did in those 18 states. Gritz even received 4% of the presidential vote in Utah, 3% in Idaho, and 1% in Louisiana and Montana, although Big Media kept a strict blackout on Gritz and the Populist Party in reporting the '92 presidential vote totals.

The Party also continued to run balloted candidates for office, distribute hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature around the country, hold many state, regional and national meetings at which many illustrious speakers spoke, and in all other ways did everything possible to make the Populist Party a success. The Populist Observer went from being a state newsletter to a nationally circulated and highly-praised monthly newspaper promoting the Populist Party. From 1987 to 1995, the Populist Party established an important legacy as America’s most successful right wing political party since the Populist Party of the 1890s.

In May of 1994, after the libel suit against Carto and his henchmen was dismissed, Wassall, the Populist Party and several of its individual leaders filed a legal malpractice suit against Jeffrey DeCaro, his former law firm --- O'Malley & Miles of Upper Marlboro, Maryland --- and a later law firm which DeCaro had formed with himself as senior partner --- DeCaro, Doran, Siciliano, Gallagher, Sonntag & DeBlasis of Lanham, Maryland. Wassall, an attorney who had practiced law but two years before leaving that profession to become the Populist Party’s Executive Director, was forced, because of financial considerations, to represent himself and the Party in the malpractice suit against DeCaro and the two D.C.-area law firms.

The defendants in the malpractice suit, through their malpractice insurance carrier, hired expensive Pittsburgh law firms to represent them in the suit,which was filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania. Thus Wassall, by himself, had to do legal battle with:

  • attorney Jeffrey R. DeCaro
  • two high-powered Washington, D.C.-area law firms
  • an insurance company with unlimited financial resources
  • two big Pittsburgh law firms
  • Willis Carto, Liberty Lobby, and Carto’s attorney, veteran ultra-left wing agitator Mark Lane, who cooperated closely with the above-named defendants and their hired legal help

In August of 1995, after various delaying tactics by the defendants, the federal judge handling the malpractice case, Gary Lancaster, dismissed Wassall and the Party’s malpractice action against DeCaro & Co. in a very unfair move that had little to do with legal authority and much to do with the whimsical power of federal judges. Shortly after this decision, the Populist Party held its last national convention, and voted to suspend operations on the national level.

Wassall appealed the summary judgment decision by Judge Lancaster to the 3rd Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, just one step below the U.S. Supreme Court. Briefs were duly filed and Wassall argued his cause in front of three judges from the 3rd Circuit in April of 1996. On July 29, 1996, the 3rd Circuit granted the appeal of Wassall and the Populist Party in convincing fashion, ruling unanimously that Judge Lancaster had erred in dismissing the case (see Wassall vs. DeCaro, 91 F.3rd 443 (1996)).

The case was not only back on track, but moved irreversibly toward trial, despite the continuing efforts of the defendants to do everything possible to delay the inevitable. After nearly six and one half years, Wassall and the Populist Party and its leaders finally gottheir day in court, beginning October 14, 1997, in a trial that lasted three long weeks. A jury trial had been all they wanted from the beginning, way back in July of 1991, but that opportunity had twice been denied them, first by the gross malpractice of an attorney who totally sold them out, and then by the decision of a federal judge, which was overcome only by the necessity of filing and winning a time-consuming appeal.

But the day in court so long awaited, in front of a jury, finally came. However, now, in order to prevail, Wassall and the Populist Party had to win not one case, but two cases in one. Under Pennsylvania law, which is what the federal court in Pittsburgh trying the case had to apply, for a plaintiff to prevail against an attorney in a malpractice action, not only must the malpractice itself be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, but the plaintiff must also show that but for the malpractice, he would have prevailed in the original cause the attorney had been hired to represent him in. Thus, Wassall and the Populist Party had to prove not only DeCaro’s malpractice, but that Carto, Mike Piper, Liberty Lobby, and The Spotlight had libeled them, a tough row to hoe indeed, especially given the high-powered array of legal specialists all working together to defeat them.

Additionally, Judge Lancaster ruled before trial that Wassall is what is known in legalese as a public figure. For a public figure to prevail in a libel case, he must show what is called actual malice --- i.e., that the statements made about him are not only defamatory, but that those publishing them knew that they were false, or that they acted in reckless disregard as to whether they were false or not. This is a very difficult standard to meet. Making it double difficult was the fact that one of the 22 counts of legal malpractice against made by Wassall and the Populist Party against DeCaro was that he refused to conduct discovery, i.e., pre-trial depositions and interrogatories that would have shed much light on the investigatory and journalistic practices of The Spotlight, such as they are.

But coming to Pittsburgh before the trial and staying for the duration as an attorney for the plaintiffs was noted nationalist attorney Kirk Lyons of the North Carolina-based CAUSE Foundation. Familiar with much of the background of the case and --- like Wassall and many other patriot leaders in America --- himself the victim of Willis Carto’s cowardly smears, Lyons proved to be of inestimable help to the plaintiffs in winning the trial.

The jury was composed of seven people, five white women, one white man, and one black woman. The plaintiffs were happy with the jury, as they were typical Middle Americans, no obvious liberals or over-educated elitist types.

The plaintiffs' case took nearly two weeks. Wassall was on the stand for three days, two days of direct testimony and one day of cross-examination. Also testifying were an array of nationalist heroes, who took much time out from their homes and jobs and came to Pittsburgh at their own expense, because they believed in the Populist Party, knew it was competently and honestly run, and because they knew that Willis Carto and his henchmen had systematically destroyed a growing, vibrant political party through outrageous libel on a level that could easily be described as criminal.

Testifying in court on behalf of the Populist Party National Committee and Wassall were:

  • long-time Populist Party Treasurer and Missouri state chairman Phil Chesler;
  • former Party Vice Chairman and Texas state chairman Tom Parker;
  • Party Parliamentarian and Arizona state chairman Billy Chandler;
  • former Executive Committee member and California state chairman Russ Hunt; and
  • Executive Committee member and Illinois state chairman John Justice.

There were other heroes too, who were planning to come to Pittsburgh to testify but couldn't because the plaintiffs had their case-in-chief limited in time by the judge --- long-time Party leader John L. Kucek of New Jersey, Executive Committee member and Pennsylvania state chairman Kim Taylor, former Executive Committee member and Colorado state chairman Howard Fields, and Joe Notarangelo, a leader of the New Jersey Populist Party.

When America is liberated and restored to its rightful owners, these men will be suitably remembered and honored by their fellow countrymen.

The plaintiffs also had, pursuant to Pennsylvania law, paid expert witnesses to testify in regard to the damages they had suffered, and in helping to prove DeCaro’s malpractice. They also introduced some 150 court document, pleadings, personal correspondence, defamatory Spotlight articles and other items of evidence into the record for the jury to consider.

In sharp contrast to the long list of Party leaders who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, the defense introduced only highly paid expert witnesses, cronies from the Pittsburgh legal community who were paid an average of $300 an hour to say what the defense attorneys wanted them to say. Also testifying were Carto’s attorney Mark Lane, and Mike Piper, Carto’s bizarre employee. Nowhere to be found were any of the former Party leaders or anyone else who Carto and Piper claimed supported their attacks on Wassall, and of course Carto himself, a notorious coward, would not take the stand.

In addition to the plaintiffs presenting a solid case, those on the plaintiffs' side who watched the trial agreed that putting Michael Collins Piper on the stand was the defense’s fatal mistake. Piper’s embarrassing admissions under oath and his combative demeanor made a highly unfavorable impression on the jury.

Piper was rendered a babbling, ranting fool under Kirk Lyons' relentless cross-examination. Piper admitted demanding $1,500 for writing a fundraising letter for the Populist Party, the kind of letter which Don Wassall wrote on a routine basis. When Wassall told Piper that he thought his demand for $1,500 --- made many months after the letter had in fact been written --- was ridiculous and would not be paid, Piper admitted authoring a written death threat that he mailed to Wassall.

It was clear from Piper’s testimony that he had nursed a grudge against Wassall ever since that incident, and that he gladly wrote the libelous articles about Wassall that began regularly appearing in The Spotlight beginning in February of 1991. Piper admitted fabricating numerous letters to the editor that appeared in The Spotlight which libeled Wassall. Piper justified this by saying, All great writers have written under fake names, which caused the jury and others in the courtroom to laugh at the implication that the buffoonish Piper was including himself among the list of great writers.

Piper also admitted writing letters to the editor under which he put the name of former Populist Party officers to give them added credibility. He admitted saying to Russ Hunt in a taped phone call that Don Wassall is a public figure and you can say just about anything you want about a public figure. Piper additionally didn't deny the essence of testimony by plaintiffs' witness John Justice, who recalled Piper saying at a Populist Party meeting in North Carolina in early 1991, We're going to take the Populist Party back by discrediting Don Wassall. Piper also admitted that various people at that same North Carolina meeting (which included a few disgruntled former Party leaders who didn't like Wassall) begged him not to attack Wassall in the pages of The Spotlight.

Piper also stated that Willis Carto is the actual editor of The Spotlight, that he was following Carto’s orders in preparing the libelous articles, and that Vince Ryan, who is portrayed by The Spotlight as the hands-on, Chairman of Liberty Lobby, actually lives in North Carolina. Piper, faced with Lyons' vigorous questioning, admitted that various statements about Wassall in The Spotlight were not accurate, and his bizarre, long-winded, nonsensical explanations about how The Spotlight had proved Wassall to be an ADL asset and State Department insider were greeted with derisive snickers by the jury. (Amazingly, Piper brazenly spoke of the many dinners and other contacts he had had with Roy Bullock, one of the ADL’s chief spies, and of Bullock’s extensive penetration of Liberty Lobby.) He also admitted lying about certain facts, saying, It’s all part of the game.

Visibly confused at times, Piper alternated between rambling, illogical answers and combative rants. He often answered questions with questions of his own, causing Judge Lancaster to berate him on many occasions. His hatred and malice toward Wassall was palpable, as was his hostility toward Lyons, at one point answering a question posed to him by Lyons by referring to your [Lyons'] FBI, a typical example of the kind of lunacy knowledgeable patriots have come to expect from the paper that bills itself as the one you can trust.

In the end, the performance of Piper --- an admitted alcoholic and drug user --- was so damaging to the defense that DeCaro’s own attorney, Jim Wood of the Pittsburgh law firm of Israel & Wood, essentially disowned Piper --- his own witness --- in his closing statement to the jury. Though Piper had complained that Wassall’s characterization of him as a disturbed personality was unfair, Piper had unwittingly impressed those in the courtroom as just that.

Also not helping the defendants' case was the testimony of Mark Lane, the life-long leftist agitator who now is the close associate and advisor to supposed populist Willis Carto. The pompous, self-admiring Lane bragged on the stand about how he was a hero of the civil rights moveent, a freedom rider who had been a close associate of Martin Luther King, and how he was also a hero of the Jonestown Massacre, after having served as Jim Jones' spokesman.

Lane also bragged about how he had never lost any of the many libel suits brought against Willis Carto over the years, how he had basically bailed Carto out time and again. Lane admitted personally inspecting and approving many of the defamatory articles printed in The Spotlight about Wassall. In the end, the jury found that Carto and The Spotlight had indeed libeled Wassall and the Populist Party, bringing to aqn end Lane’s claimed winning streak in libel cases.

And in the end, the jury spoke, and the truth was victorious. The jury held unanimously that Jeffrey DeCaro had committed malpractice, and except for that malpractice Wassall and the Populist Party would have won their libel suit against Carto and Liberty Lobby, along with $2.1 million in damages.

No combination of high-priced lawyers and Carto henchmen --- not even six-plus years of delay --- could prevent a righteous cause from triumphing. The jury system worked --- and to some degree the legal system itself --- and that is cause for joy. It is truly rare when our side wins a major victory in the establishment’s courts, and this is one truly to be savored because of the combination of power that was stacked against the plaintiffs for so long. David slewing Goliath is an understatement when describing this great victory.

Don Wassall has been vindicated and his reputation restored. He has his share of faults like everyone else, but at all times in his efforts in the nationalist movement he has acted ethically and with great dedication to the cause. Legitimate criticism is one thing, even harsh criticism; but no one --- including Willis Carto --- has the right to wrongfully try to destroy someone’s reputation through libelous articles. No matter how much Willis Carto and his privately-owned paper The Spotlight may continue to try and smear Wassall or try to distort what happened in this trial, the truth will become known over time.

The good name of the Populist Party has also been restored. No matter how much Carto may continue to try to smear the Party and those associated with it, the truth will become known over time.

Carto has already been exposed and rooted out to a great degree. Decades of scams and milking of well-intentioned patriots caught up to him when the determined, principled fighters of the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) challenged his corruption and ended up winning a judgment against Carto and Liberty Lobby of over $9 million. Over time, the truth about this long-time cancer in the nationalist movement will become known to more and more people.

The $2.1 million judgment won by the Populist Party is not against Carto or Liberty Lobby --- it is against attorney Jeffrey DeCaro and his law firm, DeCaro, Doran, Siciliano, Gallagher, Sonntag & DeBlasis. DeCaro is expected to appeal, and so the case will undoubtedly go back in the system again before the judgment can be collected. When the judgment is collected --- and the possibility exists that this case can yet be tied up in the courts for years through the appeals process --- what is left of the Populist Party leadership will decide how the Party can best be started back up. Until then, the Populist Party National Committee remains inactive for lack of resources.

Wassall notes that this triumph is a victory for all Populist Party supporters: I will always be very grateful to the many people who did stick by the Party when it was under such an unconscionable attack. You are all heroes who share in our vindication by a jury of our peers.

In the meantime, the American Nationalist Union, the organization which Wassall heads, has grown at a steady pace in 1997 and will continue to become more of a force with each passing year. My only goal from the beginning has been to help build a nationalist political alternative that can first challenge, and eventually defeat, the coalition of internationalist elites and criminals who have taken control of America through stealth and subversion, Wassall told The Nationalist Times. Whatever it takes, I still remain unswervingly committed to that goal.

(Reprinted from the November/December 1997 issue of The Nationalist Times, America’s best nationalist political paper. Subscribe for just $25 per year, P.O. Box 426, Allison Park, PA 15101.)

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