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Mar-Jac Poultry, Inc v. Rita Katz

March 30, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge


This case was stayed for years because a crucial witness asserted his Fifth Amendment rights. That issue resolved, the parties now address the merits of Plaintiff's allegations that it was defamed by a 60 Minutes segment originally aired on May 4, 2003. All Defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that the segment was not defamatory as a matter of law and that Plaintiff is unable to prove the material falsity of any alleged defamation. Defendant CBS Broadcasting, Inc., moves for summary judgment on additional grounds pertaining to the media. Plaintiff cross-moves for partial summary judgment. The motions are now ripe for decision following oral argument. The Court will grant the Defendants' joint motion as it finds the challenged statements are protected by the First Amendment.


A. The Parties

This matter is rooted in a 60 Minutes news report entitled "Terrorist Hunter" which originally aired nationwide on May 4, 2003 (the "Broadcast"). The Broadcast focused on Defendant Rita Katz and her efforts to uncover people and entities that provided financial support to Islamic extremists from within the United States. References were interwoven throughout the Broadcast that Ms. Katz turned over information from her investigations to the United States government, which often acted on that information. It is the latter half of the Broadcast, which focused on Ms. Katz's investigation of entities operating out of an office building at 555 Grove Street in Herndon, Virginia, from which this action springs. Plaintiff Mar-Jac Poultry, Inc. ("Mar-Jac") alleges that the Broadcast directly or indirectly created the impression that Mar-Jac engaged in money laundering in a knowing effort to support terrorism. As referenced in the Broadcast, the government relied on Ms. Katz's findings, at least in part, to execute various search warrants in furtherance of an investigation of terrorist financing at 555 Grove Street and at Mar-Jac's offices in Georgia.

Defendant CBS produces and broadcasts 60 Minutes, including the May 4, 2003 "Terrorist Hunter" segment. Bob Simon was the 60 Minutes correspondent who interviewed Rita Katz in the Broadcast.*fn1 Rita Katz is the author and subject of the book "Terrorist Hunter: The Extraordinary Story of a Woman Who Went Undercover to Infiltrate the Radical Islamic Groups Operating in America." At one point, she was also a director of Defendant SITE Institute (Search for International Terrorist Entities Institute), which is no longer in existence as Defendant IG, LLC, acquired all of SITE Institute's assets and liabilities in 2007. Ms. Katz is part owner of IG, LLC.

Mar-Jac is a producer and processor of poultry products in Gainesville, Georgia. From 1984 to 1996, Mar-Jac Poultry, Inc., was wholly owned by Mar-Jac, Inc. From 1984 to 1990, Mar-Jac, Inc., was wholly owned by the Saar Foundation, and from 1990 to 1996, the Saar Foundation owned 51% of Mar-Jac, Inc., while 49% was owned by Aradi Inc., Mena Corp., and Safa Trust. See Defs.' Opp'n [Dkt. ## 204, 206], [Ex. 1] Composite Statement of Undisputed Material Facts ¶¶ 3, 8. At some point in 1996, Mar-Jac Poultry, Inc., became wholly owned by Mar-Jac Holdings, Inc., which is, in turn, majority-owned by Safa Trust. Id. ¶ 12.

Saar Foundation was established as a charity in 1983 and was initially funded by members of the wealthy al-Rajhi family of Saudi Arabia. Id. ¶ 4. In 1995, a member of the al-Rajhi family requested the resignation of three Saar board members, who he allegedly believed shared a different vision of Islamic thinking, and promoted Dr. M. Yaqub Mirza to become Saar's president. Id. ¶ 7. In 1996, Saar came under some scrutiny in the United States about potential ties with radical Islamic groups. Thereafter, Saar began a process of transferring funds to the Humana Charitable Trust, an offshore trust in the Channel Islands, managed by a corporate trustee which was controlled by Dr. Mirza and an attorney who represented the al-Rajhi family. Saar ultimately dissolved in 2000. See id. ¶ 10.

At all times relevant to this litigation, Dr. Mirza was an officer, director, or managing agent of Mar-Jac or its holding company, Saar, and the Safa Trust. Id. ¶¶ 18--19. The Safa Trust is a non-profit organization, funded in part by the al-Rajhi family, and was established as an endowment for the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Id. ¶ 13. The International Institute of Islamic Thought is an Islamic think tank funded in large part by Safa. Id. ¶ 117. Mena Corp was a wholly owned subsidiary of Safa Trust. Id. ¶ 9. Roughly from 1984 to 1997-by way of loans, donations, or other arrangements-millions of dollars flowed between Mar-Jac (and/or its holding companies) and Saar, Safa, Heritage Education Trust, Mena Corp., and/or International Institute of Islamic Thought. See id. ¶¶ 87--89, 90, 92, 94, 102--07, 119--20.

The real property described in the Broadcast was the office building at 555 Grove Street, which was constructed in 1987. Thereafter, most, if not all, of Mar-Jac's beneficial owners maintained offices at 555 Grove. Id. ¶ 16. At all times relevant to this litigation, the 555 Grove Street property was owned by either Grove Corporate Plaza, Inc., which in turn was owned by Saar, or by the Heritage Education Trust. Id. ¶ 17. As referenced in the Broadcast, on March 20 and 21, 2002, the federal government executed search warrants at approximately twenty different locations, including the 555 Grove Street building, Mar-Jac's offices in Georgia, and the homes of three of Mar-Jac's corporate directors. Id. ¶ 49. Mar-Jac acknowledges that Ms. Katz was an influencing source behind the government's search warrants. See id. ¶ 50; Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 127] ¶¶ 20--22.

B. The Broadcast

CBS aired the Broadcast on May 4, 2003. The "Terrorist Hunter" segment was one of several and lasted for approximately thirteen minutes. It opened with correspondent Bob Simon sitting in a chair while behind him ran the title "Terrorist Hunter" superimposed over a picture of a woman whose face was covered by a veil. Mr. Simon began: "Ever since 9/11, Washington's been trying to trace and shut down terrorist financing. It's been relying on tips from all sorts of shadowy figures in shadowy places. But one tipster government officials say has been especially valuable is a professional researcher who's spent more than five years investigating links to Muslim terrorism here in the United States." Defs.' Mem. [Dkt. # 186], [Ex. 21] 60 Minutes "Terrorist Hunter" Broadcast Tr. (May 4, 2003) ("Broadcast Tr.") at 14.*fn2 Mr. Simon explained that the "tipster" had just authored a book entitled "Terrorist Hunter" which "details how groups in America have been providing significant support to terrorist outfits and how she helped track them down." Id. Ms. Katz was referred to as "Sarah" throughout the Broadcast to hide her identity and she was in disguise during the televised interview.

Mr. Simon underscored that Ms. Katz had provided information to the "FBI, the Treasury Department, Customs, the [Immigration and Nationality Service], even the White House." Id. Ms. Katz, who is a native of Iran, then described her routine of tracking down the websites of terrorist organizations like al-Qaida to provide immediate information to the government, which would then shut down the website. See id. Mr. Simon explained, "It's a game of cat and mouse. She can't tell us how to play it for reasons of national security." Id. Ms. Katz also explained how she investigated charities based in the United States that she suspected of providing financial support to terrorist groups. The Broadcast took a notedly personal turn by exploring the genesis of Ms. Katz's obsession with routing out terrorists: when she was a young girl growing up in Iraq, her father was accused of spying for Israel and was hung by Saddam Hussein's forces. See id. at 15. Her mother fled the country with her children. Id.

Mr. Simon then explained that Ms. Katz began her career as a "terrorist hunter" by going undercover to help expose a Texas-based charity that provided support to children of "martyrs," i.e. suicide bombers. See id. at 16. Because the "charity" was receiving federal funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Ms. Katz asserted that she "contacted the White House, and it was stopped." Id. 16. Mr. Simon revealed that the charity was ultimately shut down and a clip was shown of a press conference in which President George W. Bush announced that the Department of Treasury had frozen the assets and accounts of the charity. Id. Mr. Simon also presented, as Ms. Katz's belief, that many American corporations, by matching donations of employees, had at times innocently and unknowingly donated funds to charities which supported terrorism. See id. at 17.

In a voice-over, Mr. Simon narrated that in April 2001 Ms. Katz had videotaped alQaida sympathizers in a demonstration in New York City, as footage of her recording was displayed, but the federal government was not interested in her tape. Mr. Simon noted: "But that changed after 9/11. Suddenly, Sarah says, the FBI was interested not only in the tape but in all her work. And the government began cracking down on the charities she'd been investigating." Id. Mr. Simon then explained that Ms. Katz continued going undercover, dressed as an observant Muslim woman, into allegedly radical mosques. See id. The relevant segment of the Broadcast continued:

(Footage of a mosque; Muslim women; building at 555 Grove Street) SIMON: (Voiceover) The mosques started Sarah on a trail which ended in her biggest investigation. The most radical mosques, she says, were all owned by a single organization, whose founders now had offices in a Washington suburb. The address was 555 Grove Street, Herndon, Virginia.

[Q:] So here we are at 555 Grove Street. Was this your biggest hit?

SARAH: Yes. It's my biggest lead to the government. (Footage of Simon and Sarah; Dumpsters)

SIMON: (Voiceover) Because, Sarah discovered, this one building, 555 Grove, housed nearly 100 organizations owned by Muslims, most of them run by the same small group of people. Sarah was convinced she'd stumbled upon the heart of a terrorist financing ring. One night-late one night, Sarah came to 555 with some colleagues and collected the trash from the Dumpsters.

[Q:] And what did you find in the trash?

SARAH: I found one important letter that actually gave me the first lead to understand that the money comes from Saudi Arabia. (Photo of a Saudi family)

SIMON: (Voiceover) Came from members of an extremely wealthy Saudi family, the al-Rajhis, who, Sarah claims, funded many of the organizations in 555 Grove.

SARAH: So what we have here is just a very simple chart of how the money flows from Saudi Arabia. (Footage of chart showing flow of money)

SIMON: (Voiceover) In fact, it's not simple at all. Sarah mapped out how, she says, the money flowed from Saudi Arabia to a web of charities, think tanks and businesses at 555 Grove, then to offshore banks and ultimately, she says, to terrorist groups. It's not simple because, Sarah says, it's not meant to be. It's designed to make it difficult to follow the money. And one especially inventive idea the Saudis came up with according to Sarah was chickens. They bought a chicken farm in Georgia.

SARAH: Chicken-I see it as the best cover for money laundering.

SIMON: Chicken is the best cover for money laundering? SARAH: Why? Because...


SARAH: ... chicken is one of the things that no one really can track it down. If you say in one year that you lost 10 million chickens, no one can prove it. They just ...

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