BuzzFeed editor, reporters could soon be under oath

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Lawyers for a Russian tech mogul suing online news site BuzzFeed for defamation will seek within the next two weeks to take sworn testimony from its editor and several reporters.

The suit stems from BuzzFeed’s decision to become the first news operation to post online a former British spy’s dossier about Russia’s alleged scheme to help Donald Trump win the presidency last fall.

A federal judge in Miami on Monday rejected BuzzFeed’s bid to move the case to New York. In a phone interview Tuesday, attorney Val Gurvits, representing a Russian web hosting company and its owner who were named in the dossier, said he would take steps to obtain depositions from BuzzFeed employees.

“Certainly I will be deposing Ben Smith, there’s no question,” said Gurvits, referring to the editor-in-chief of the online news site.

Asked if settlement talks were underway, he declined to get specific. “We are in discussions with their legal team,” he said.

Matt Mittenthal, a spokesman for BuzzFeed, said the firm is confident it will emerge victorious.

“While we are disappointed with the judge's ruling (Monday), we're confident that Mr. Gubarev's suit will eventually be dismissed wherever we are forced to fight it,” Mittenthal said.

At least four BuzzFeed reporters would likely be questioned, Gurvits said, with the goal of determining “what steps, if any, BuzzFeed took to verify the facts” about his client, Aleksej Gubarev.

Gubarev is a venture capitalist who owns Florida-based Webzilla Inc., Cyprus-based XBT and other tech companies that collectively are involved in web hosting, online storage and Internet services.

The Russian tech entrepreneur has lived for years in Cyprus, and brought his defamation suit in Florida, where Webzilla is based.

The 35-page compilation of reports from ex-British spy Christopher Steele contained some explosive allegations. It began as political opposition research against Trump by a Washington-based consulting firm working on behalf of an unnamed Republican client. McClatchy and several other news organizations obtained copies and were attempting to corroborate the allegations when BuzzFeed posted the document on Jan. 10.

BuzzFeed redacted only one name from the dossier that night, on page 34. By doing so it effectively edited the document, suggested Gurvits, raising the question of why “others don’t deserve that same protection.”

Many of those identified in the dossier are public figures, but Gubarev was not a household name. In January, Gubarev flatly denied the allegation relating to him and Webzilla in a McClatchy interview: namely, that they were instrumental in the hacking of leaked Democratic Party emails embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.

Kremlin spies, the dossier claimed, had coerced Gubarev to join in the operation because they had compromising information about him.

Gubarev initially filed the case in state court, but it was moved in early February to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami.

The Russian entrepreneur also brought suit in London against Steele and his firm Orbis Business Intelligence. The question Gurvits said his client wants answered is, “How is it that these names appear?”

BuzzFeed has until June 9 to respond to Gubarev’s original complaint.

David Goldstein contributed to this article.

Kevin G. Hall: 202-383-6038, @KevinGHall

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