Mark D. Granados and Hill-Granados Retail Partners claimed that Coalition President Richard Alles sent an e-mail that included "false and defamatory statements" about the plaintiff: "Such statements were made by Defendants with recklessness and malice and were intended to harm the reputation of Plaintiffs in the community and to disrupt, stop and/or impede the ongoing development and construction of Plaintiffís Project with resulting actual losses and consequent damages to Plaintiffs in excess of $25 (million)."

The lawsuit, filed April 9, prevented Alles from talking about the case until the May 19 hearing.

Alles' e-mail referred to an amendment proposed by developer Bill Kaufman to water down the city's tree preservation ordinance before City Council adopted it. Developers lobbied fiercely against the new tree protections in favor of bulldozing centuries-old native oak trees and replacing them with sapling trash trees such as Arizona ash.

"This is a Bill Kaufman amendment. I suspect that it was requested by Hill-Granados Retail Partners. Their Super Wal-Mart project at Vance Jackson and I-10 bumped into this requirement. A waiver was granted by city staff, even though Granados promised the neighborhood that he would comply with the tree ordinance," the e-mail read.

Robert W. Negley, attorney for Granados, asked for a temporary restraining order to stop any further "libelous and slanderous statements regarding plaintiff."

Negley claimed that Alles or other members of the Citizens Tree Coalition spoke to members of the Dellview Neighborhood Association, and told them about the proposed amendment and subsequent waiver, and "such statements constituted libel per se and slander per se because they alleged that a violation of city ordinances had been committed by Plaintiffs." However, after the suit was filed, the Dellview Neighborhood Association lost its spine, and canceled Alles' May 14 presentation to its membership.

Attorney Richard Sommer told Judge Shannon that Alles had been appointed to a citizens' advisory board to help develop the city's tree preservation ordinance, and that he had the right to free speech, especially when it concerns pending legislation. He argued that political speech cannot be restrained "prior to legislation."

Judge Shannon said he didn't believe free speech could be restrained, and instructed Negley to relax over a plate of case law and a cup of coffee, and to return to the bench a few minutes later.

"Defamation alone is not sufficient cause. The law permits people to go around telling scandalous lies against people."

"I think we're getting shot down," Negley told his client.

Developers and lobbyists pulled out some dirty tricks in its long opposition to the city's tree ordinance, but this latest move by Granados demonstrates their level of audacity.

California has adopted a law forbidding frivolous lawsuits against environmental activists. But this is Texas, and the only tort reform the Legislature would adopt protects insurance companies, not trees.

Sommer labeled the strong-arm tactic as spiteful. "I don't understand why it was filed.

I don't think that what Richard Alles said was untrue. We are considering a counter lawsuit". •

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