by Irvin Muchnick
Bill Villa, a persistent and colorful critic of Lehigh County’s long-time, corrupt district attorney James Martin — whose office, among other things, botched the murder prosecution of WWE star Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka in the 1983 death of his girlfriend Nancy Argentino, an investigative focus of mine for 27 years — spent a day last week visiting the courthouse to drop off autographed copies of the lead story on the front page of the previous Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer and its subsequent reprint in the Allentown Morning Call.
The article highlighted at long last, in a major regional media outlet, the harassment of Villa by Martin, via a meritless defamation lawsuit, in retaliation for exposé things written about the DA on a website and spoken in radio interviews.
The bark of the headline over the piece by Inquirer investigative reporter David Gambacorta, “‘Court-assisted terrorism’? How the powerful can muzzle free speech for about $300.,” is a lot stronger than the bite of its survey of the landscape of litigation known in the First Amendment community as “SLAPP”: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. SLAPP’s are frivolous court claims, usually by powerful individuals and corporations, designed to neutralize and/or bankrupt those exercising free speech.
Interested readers can review the article for themselves at https://www.inquirer.com/news/free-speech-lawsuit-slapp-donald-trump-devin-nunes-daylin-leach-20190524.html.
SLAPP practice is odious on its face, as plain a perversion of democracy as could be imagined, and it reaches new levels of illegitimacy in the case of Martin v. Villa. For Martin is not a private citizen but a powerful public official whose bar to success in libel or slander claims is extremely high; he would need to establish not just that what Villa has been saying about him is untrue (which it is not), but also that it has shown reckless disregard for the truth. The Inquirer article doesn’t even get to a core question of who is bankrolling Martin’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to harass Villa. The district attorney’s office? Martin’s reelection campaign? A slush fund of his Lehigh Valley cronies?
Cronyism is at the heart of Bill Villa’s critical speech. After his 25-year-old daughter Sheena was killed by a drunk driver in 2006, Villa began highlighting the favoritism given to the vehicular homicide perpetrator, a rich kid named Robert LaBarre, son of a powerful local lawyer, and the wrist slaps for several other DUI homicide defendants.
Villa’s writings involve far too many tangents for anyone to follow in full from arm’s length. But in light of my Snuka case involvement, the overall theme of exposing and challenging local corruption resonated for me. And along the years I’ve had contact with some of the players in the Villa saga. One was Lehigh County Judge James T. Anthony, who conducted himself like a complete goof. First, Anthony emailed me comments about DA Martin that were admirably critical, though perhaps also a tad inappropriate coming from a judge speaking off the cuff (they were similar to numerous and subsequently published comments Judge Anthony had emailed Villa). Later, however, Anthony would renege on a promise to Villa’s attorney to testify against Martin and offer support to the beleaguered Villa as he was deposed by Martin’s lawyers from the Sprague & Sprague law firm, warded off their cynical legal maneuvers (which keep the litigation alive but at a calculated standstill), and maintained his loud public voice.
The Martin legal team has deployed a cousin shared by Judge Anthony and Bill Villa, Jeffrey Anthony, who has been personally attacking and harassing Villa and his attorney for three and a half years. Jeffrey Anthony’s seemingly sanctioned antics have included inducing the Allentown Police Department and the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office to “criminally investigate” Villa via the clever technical “recusal” of plaintiff DA Martin. The background of the AG’s groundless probe of Villa is shockingly abusive (no charges were forthcoming) and just begins to scratch the surface of the “court-assisted terrorism” that the Inquirer story could have covered in depth, but instead only refers to in passing.
While I can’t claim to have had the time to vet every single allegation Villa makes, I can vouch for his voluminous backup documentation and, most importantly, for his unequivocal right to state his opinions on the conduct of public officials, in his own voice and his own inimitable style. (Villa’s website is http://bloggingdottie.blogspot.com.)
A little more about the Morning Call. Unbeknownst to casual observers, it actually screwed up the Jimmy Snuka case just as badly as Martin’s predecessor William Platt (now a senior state judge) and Martin himself. At the 30th anniversary of the Nancy Argentino death, the newspaper got religion and published a sensational “cold case” package that, in retrospect, seems mostly about giving its co-authors a basis to apply for regional journalism awards. In fact, the 2013 story had almost no information not fully known by Morning Call reporters from the get-go in 1983. To this day, there has been no local “Call-out” of the lies of the original police investigator, Whitehall detective Gerald Procanyn, who retired from the force 18 years ago, only to surface again, double-dipping as an investigator for Martin’s office, where he would lead the team unsuccessfully resurrecting his own original bellyflop on busting Snuka.
A grand jury indicted Snuka following the Morning Call’s belated attention to the cold case (whose cold case?), but a judge threw out the charges, on mental incompetency grounds, shortly before the brain-addled wrestler died in 2017. (And Procanyn recently retired from his double-dip gig with the DA; is he now collecting two pension checks?)
As we like to say, the ultimate Philadelphia Inquirer product on Martin v. Villa is somewhat better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. How much better depends on how engaged you are. Reporter Gambacorta fussed with this masterpiece for a ridiculous 18 months — sometimes being detached by his editors for other stories, at least one of which was along the breakthrough lines of “Controversies over Donald Trump continue, as some critics say he’s bad while some others say he’s good.” Such is the sad state of the spine and resources of the once-indispensable medium of the local daily newspaper.
One of the reasons for the publication delay was that the Inquirer decided in its wisdom that, rather than treat Martin v. Villa in great depth, it would lump it into an omnibus account of SLAPP lawsuits across the country. One other example given is the widely ridiculed lawsuit by Congressman Devin Nunes against a parody Twitter account. Jeepers, I’m surprised the Inquirer didn’t also just throw in the action over the Hulk Hogan sex tape, underwritten by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, which put Gawker Media out of business.
All this throat-clearing enables Gambacorta to devote fewer than 900 words to the case with the most immediacy and news value for the Inquirer’s neighboring readers.
Two years ago I asked the Allentown Morning Call’s publisher at the time, Robert York, why his own paper refused to lay a glove on Martin v. Villa. York excused the lapse with the explanation that Pennsylvania didn’t have a good anti-SLAPP law — as if this were not the very reason why such a story is important. York then was sent on by the Morning Call’s owner, Tronc, to oversee dismantling the New York Daily News.
It was a positive development last week when the Morning Call picked up the Inquirer story, bowdlerized though it is. In his county courthouse peregrinations, Bill Villa happened upon the current Call editor-in-chief, Terry Rang, in person, and pitched follow-up coverage. We’ll see what happens next. We’ll also see whether Lehigh County voters finally put Jim Martin out to pasture. Both the Lehigh County and the fuller Pennsylvania media have everything they need to put real flesh on this first skeletal sketch of the DA’s SLAPP-happy court-assisted terrorism.
Last thought: The Inquirer uses “expert” quotes from David Kairys, a Temple University law professor and, as the newspaper puts it in a bit of Squad Squad redundancy, “a longtime civil rights civil attorney.” Instead of expounding on anti-SLAPP principles, however, Kairys chooses at one point to pontificate on the public relations tactics of Martin. “It’s just a little hard to understand why they would go to all this trouble for a guy who’s obviously distraught,” Kairys says. This revictimizing statement is despicable. The Inquirer’s decision to waste precious space on it was deplorable.
James Martin, Pennsylvania District Attorney Whose Office Screwed Up the Murder Prosecution of Wrestler Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka — And Covered Up It and Other Cases — Runs For an Unprecedented Sixth Term Published January 4th, 2019