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Fire board director sues John Woodell for defamation

Virginia Chang Kiraly files countersuit

The ongoing saga of a defamation lawsuit filed by the husband of a Menlo Park council member against a fire board director as well as a resident now running for the fire board has added a new chapter: Fire board director Virginia Chang Kiraly is suing John Woodell, married to Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, for defamation.

It takes a whiteboard and some diagramming skills to keep track of the legal wrangling, which bloomed about a year after Ms. Chang Kiraly successfully campaigned for a seat on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District governing board in 2011.

All parties agree that her campaign sign was mysteriously uprooted from co-defendant Chuck Bernstein's yard and later found in some bushes, lying near a cellphone that later turned out to belong to Mr. Woodell.

Mr. Woodell denied vandalizing the sign. He speculated that he may have lost his phone while walking the dog in the neighborhood where both his family and the Bernsteins live, according to court documents, or that someone somehow got their hands on it.

He filed a defamation lawsuit against Ms. Chang Kiraly and Mr. Bernstein in 2012 that alleges the pair told the media, police and others that he'd vandalized campaign signs during the election. Both defendants deny saying any such thing.

Ms. Chang Kiraly responded by filing a motion to dismiss under California's anti-SLAPP law, which prohibits lawsuits brought primarily for the purpose of intimidation and limiting free speech. The judge declined to dismiss the suit.

Mr. Bernstein, representing himself, filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Woodell, who in turn filed and won an anti-SLAPP motion. A San Mateo County judge is currently considering how much Mr. Bernstein will have to pay for his opponent's legal fees; Mr. Woodell's team has asked for an estimated $24,228.

Now Ms. Chang Kiraly has filed a defamation suit of her own. The lawsuit claims that Mr. Woodell told other people she'd "stolen or otherwise wrongfully possessed his personal cell phone before it was reported as being found in Bernstein's yard, and further claiming that Kiraly had been involved in framing Woodell in connection with the Incident," even though he knew those statements weren't true, according to the lawsuit filed on Oct. 11,

Being a public figure, the fire board director has a higher standard to meet to prove her case.

"Whether or not Virginia is a public figure would simply change the standard for proof to actual malice," said Harmeet Dhillon, the attorney representing Ms. Chang Kiraly. "Public figures can be defamed. Here Virginia is being accused of possessing John Woodell's cellphone and engaging in a conspiracy to frame him, both of which are not only false but utterly baseless positions, so actual malice would be based on whether he either knew those statements were false (because he has knowledge of what happened to the phone). We have pled actual malice in our cross-complaint."

Seth Rosenberg of Minami Tamaki LLP, representing Mr. Woodell, described the latest lawsuit as unfounded. "Just as Mr. Bernstein's claim was thrown out of court, Ms. Kiraly's claim is without merit and filed out of desperation," he said. "Ms. Kiraly intended to file a spiteful lawsuit against witnesses in our case, but instead filed this nonsense claim against my client. This baseless claim is an attempt to shift attention from Ms. Kiraly's deplorable behavior."

He said that when speaking with the press during initial reports about the wayward campaign sign, Ms. Kiraly didn't reveal "that Mr. Bernstein had asked her if she wanted a public scandal and she then advised Mr. Bernstein to go to the press before speaking to the police."

During the campaign, Mr. Woodell formally endorsed another candidate for the fire board, but not Ms. Kiraly. According to his attorney, claims that his client did not also support her are incorrect, as Mr. Woodell sent her "numerous supportive emails" throughout the campaign, including the day the cellphone was found.

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