A defamation suit brought against online news site BuzzFeed for its publishing of an intelligence dossier that alleges Kremlin ties to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been transferred to federal court.
The suit, brought by Cyprus-based tech mogul Aleksej Gubarev, was transferred Tuesday at BuzzFeed’s request from a local Florida court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami.
Gubarev’s defamation suit against BuzzFeed demanded a response by Feb. 28, which has been extended. Since the lawsuit was filed, BuzzFeed has redacted Gubarev’s name from the document and apologized.
“I have agreed to give them to March 24,” said Val Gurvits, an attorney with the Boston Law Group, which has represented Gubarev and his companies, XBT and Webzilla, for a decade.
BuzzFeed Communications Director Matt Mittenthal said, "The damages Mr. Gubarev now claims are absurd and disproportionate. We are pleased a judge has agreed to our request to move this to federal court, where we look forward to resolving this matter quickly."
Gurvits filed one of two suits on behalf of his client on Feb. 3, claiming BuzzFeed defamed Gubarev when the news site published a 35-page dossier of uncorroborated, explosive allegations compiled by a former British spy.
The dossier, which began as political opposition research, had been in the possession of McClatchy and several other news organizations, all of which had been working to corroborate allegations. One claimed that Gubarev and his companies were instrumental in the hacking of leaked Democratic Party emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.
XBT and Webzilla offer web hosting, storage and a number of other tech services. Gubarev runs his tech empire from Cyprus, although Webzilla is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. BuzzFeed published the entire document shortly after CNN reported on portions of it, and the salacious portions went viral.
At the time the document became public, Gubarev told McClatchy he had no idea why the British spy, later outed as former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, would link Gubarev’s name to the alleged Russian hacking ahead of U.S. elections.
The dossier claimed that Kremlin spies had coerced Gubarev because he had compromising information, something Gubarev flatly denied.
In an interview, his attorney said no one from U.S. law enforcement had before or since reached out to Gubarev.
“He’s made it clear he will open up his computers to any law enforcement agency in the United States that wants to take a look,” Gurvits said. “It is important to us to make it very, very clear to anyone that is listening that we want to clear their name.”
The attorney also clarified who is paying for the defamation suit.
“Gubarev is paying for everything,” said Gurvits. “He can certainly (afford) it. It is a $150 million company. It can afford to fight this fight.”
Defendants often seek to move cases from local courts to federal courts because of concerns about being “hometowned” by a presumably favorable local jury, said Joseph Little, a professor emeritus at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida. That might be less of factor is this instance because — even though Webzilla is based in Florida — Gubarev is not a local businessman.
More likely, Little said, is that BuzzFeed wants the case to be heard in a federal court, which might be more current on constitutional issues, particularly since the First Amendment is likely to be central to the case.
A separate team of lawyers in Britain have brought a similar suit against Steele and his company Orbis Business Intelligence. Steele is believed to be in hiding, fearing for his safety.
“What could he possibly be afraid of?” asked Gurvits.
Several high-level Russian officials have died since word began circulating about Steele’s reports. One was a former KGB general who had worked closely with Igor Sechin, the powerful head of the state oil behemoth Rosneft.
Initial news reports in Russia on Dec. 26 said the general, Oleg Erovinkin, had been murdered in his car in an alley. Later that day reports said he had died of a heart attack. Erovinkin matched the profile of a source close to Sechin named in the Steele dossier.