Lower Murray Water guilty of defamation

A MILDURA Supreme Court jury today found Lower Murray Urban and Rural Water Corporation defamed four former directors of the First Mildura Irrigation Trust by publishing a letter written by former Victorian Water Minister Tim Holding on its website.

In his letter, published soon after Mr Holding sacked the FMIT board and merged the trust with LMW on September 15, 2008, the Minister claimed the former directors had illegally invested a $2.2 million government loan in the US sub-prime mortgage market, and secretly altered the contracts of three former senior executives of the trust to increase their termination payouts after the merger.

The jury in the civil case was required to determine answers to 13 different questions arising from LMW's publication of the letter. Many of the questions had multiple parts, and the jury had to deliver separate verdicts for all four plaintiffs - former FMIT chair Jim Belbin, his ex-deputy, Frank Dimasi, and board members Don Marciano and Nancy Prevedello.

Another former board member, Ang Panagiotaros, had already received a confidential settlement from LMW because he was not a board member when FMIT made the $2.2 million investment. 

Another ex-board member, John Primorano, declined to join the other plaintiffs.

One of the jury's key findings was that by LMW had not uploaded the Minister's letter to its website for the principal purpose of informing former FMIT customers, and other customers of the FMIT, of the Minister's reasons for sacking the board and merging FMIT with Lower Murray Water.

While the jury accepted that LMW managing director Ron Leamon had originally uploaded the letter because he believed it was his duty to do so, at the Minister's request, it did not accept the argument that LMW was not endorsing the minister's claims.

The jury accepted the plaintiffs' argument that dominant motive of the defendant, LMW, in publishing the Minister's letter, was improper, and was ulterior to the claimed purpose of informing former FMIT irrigators, LMW's other customers, and the community, about why Mr Holding had dismissed the board and taken the decision to merge the two water authorities.

Speaking after the verdict yesterday, Mr Belbin said he felt "enormously relieved that the case was over, and that the four directors' reputations had been restored."We're all looking forward to getting back to our lives," he said.

 "The jury's verdict has vindicated my faith that the people of the Mildura community, when they had all the information before them, would see that an injustice was done."

Justice Stephen Kaye adjourned the trial until October 8. 

The next phase of the trial, which will be held in Melbourne, will determine the damages due to the four plaintiffs, and rule on responsibility for the cost of the civil trial.

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