During an interview on CNN Sunday morning, President Donald Trump‘s lawyer Rudy Giuliani made a bold statement claiming that Michael Cohen‘s father-in-law, Fima Shusterman, may have mob connections. Now, a well-known law professor says he could potentially face a lawsuit over it.
“His father-in-law was — he may have ties to something called organized crime,” Giuliani said. Host Jake Tapper challenged this assertion by asking, “Because he’s Ukrainian?” When the former New York City Mayor didn’t back up his accusation, Tapper called it a “leap.”
Giuliani said that when federal prosecutors in New York took a tough stance against Cohen, it was because he wouldn’t give them information about his father-in-law. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for crimes including tax and bank fraud, campaign finance violations, and lying to Congress.
George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley called out Giuliani for his comments about organized crime, pointing out the peril in accusing someone of criminal activity.
“Criminal conduct has long been recognized as a per se category of slander under common law torts as well as such categories as moral turpitude and unchastity or impugning professional reputation,” Turley said in a Monday morning blog post. While defamation cases for slander or libel generally require that a plaintiff prove damage, some types of statements, including accusations of crimes, are often considered per se defamation and are assumed to be harmful without requiring proof of damage.
To prove a defamation case (slander for spoken statements, libel for written ones), a person must show that a statement is false, was made to a third party (like a TV host or audience), and was harmful. Here, that last part would be a given under the doctrine of defamation per se, as it was an allegation of criminal activity. Additionally, if the subject of the statement is a public figure, it must be proven that the speaker acted with knowledge that the statement was false, or reckless disregard for whether or not it was true. For other individuals, they have to show that the speaker was at least negligent in making the statement.
Turley, who was recently seen appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee for William Barr‘s confirmation hearing, acknowledged that Shusterman could be deemed a limited public figure, given public attention he has received regarding certain business dealings. Cohen pleaded guilty to tax fraud related to his taxi business, which he got into through his father-in-law. Despite having a possible public figure status in a lawsuit over this, Turley said Shusterman could have a “straightforward case.”
Of course, any claim that Shusterman might have against Giuliani would hinge on whether the accusation against him are actually false. If Giuliani’s statements are unfounded, he could have a lot of explaining to due if Shusterman were to sue. Interestingly enough, Turley doesn’t think there will be any lawsuit.
“I do not expect that to happen,” he wrote, because “Shusterman has long been accused of criminal practices or associations.” That doesn’t mean that those accusations are true, but the idea is that if Shusterman hasn’t sued over them in the past, it’s unlikely that he would start now.
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