NEW YORK — Citing state secrets and a threat to national security, the United States government has asked a judge to toss out a defamation lawsuit that a Greek shipping magnate brought against a nonprofit organization seeking to thwart Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.
Victor Restis, a billionaire Greek citizen, sued the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran last year, claiming it was trying to ruin his livelihood and reputation by falsely claiming he did business with Iran. On Friday, the U.S. government filed papers in Manhattan federal court saying the head of a federal agency had asserted a claim of privilege to information Restis demanded the nonprofit organization release.
The government, which is not a party to the case but sought to intervene, said the privileged information’s disclosure could seriously damage national security, though its submission was vaguely worded and did not explain how a private organization would have information that could harm national security if it were released.
It said the case should be thrown out because its continuation would be “highly likely to risk disclosure of properly privileged matters.”
In his lawsuit last year, Restis sought unspecified damages, saying the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran had made “grave, inflammatory and extremely damaging accusations” against him as it “launched its campaign vilifying Mr. Restis as a despicable criminal in league with the Iranian regime.”
The lawsuit said the accusations had “wrongly cast an unwarranted dark cloud of suspicion and scrutiny over him and the Restis family businesses, crippled his ability to conduct business around the world, caused him and the Restis family businesses to suffer enormous and irreparable financial and economic damages, inflicted extreme and irreparable emotional distress and harm, and successfully incited hatred, personal attacks and threats of violence against Mr. Restis and his businesses.”
In court papers, the coalition called the lawsuit “little more than a thinly veiled effort to silence a U.S. organization’s efforts to prevent business transactions with Iran and thwart Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.”
Lee Wolosky and Brian Stack, lawyers for the group, said in a statement that the lawsuit was an attempt by Restis to deflect attention from his criminal and civil problems in Greece.
“His complaint falsely stated that he did no business in Iran,” the statement said. “We expect Mr. Restis’ lawsuit to be dismissed.”
Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Restis, said in a statement Monday that the coalition had made “false, unsupported and libelous allegations against Mr. Restis, but rather than try to defend what it did or allow the world to know the truth, UANI is now hiding behind the government’s skirt.”
Wolosky and Stack said in their statement that the New York-based organization has never sought or received funds from any foreign individual.
At an April hearing, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos said he was concerned that the coalition was able to make public statements and then “not have to answer to their actions on the basis of a privilege.”
He called it “very curious that these privileges are being asserted.”