Irish man’s €18.5m libel claim over rhino horn article dismissed

Richard Kerry O’Brien sued Bloomberg Businessweek over alleged falsehoods

Undated handout photo issued by Durham Police of the 14 men who where linked to the theft. On the very bottom left is Richard Kerry O’Brien. Photograph: Durham Police/PA Wire

Undated handout photo issued by Durham Police of the 14 men who where linked to the theft. On the very bottom left is Richard Kerry O’Brien. Photograph: Durham Police/PA Wire

 

A judge in New York has dismissed a $20 million (€18.5 million) libel and emotional distress suit taken by a Limerick man over an article about him concerning the theft of rhino horns and Chinese artefacts.

Richard Kerry O’Brien sued Bloomberg Businessweek over an article he claimed falsely portrayed him as the mastermind behind a multi-million euro global criminal conspiracy involving the theft of the items. He claimed damages for libel and emotional distress.

A New York Supreme Court judge dismissed all parts of the complaint, including one claim that the authors of the January 2014 article should have independently tested rhino horns, then in UK police custody, before the piece was published. The horns turned out to be fake, but that was only known long after publication.

Mr O’Brien, whose two sons and others members of his extended family are serving time in the UK for their involvement in a multi-million euro rhino horn and Chinese artefact theft and smuggling scheme, is not giving up on the action. He has filed an appeal against the February judgment.

In the appellate court filing, O’Brien’s lawyer argues that presiding Judge Lucy Billings erred in dismissing the complaint. Judge Billings ruled that elements of the story were covered by privilege, while others were not defamatory.

“Contrary to these false claims, the entire article is a malicious regurgitation of Irish Garda and Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB) falsehoods that fails to observe basic standards of journalism,” Mr O’Brien’s lawyer Faisal Moghul argued.

The court filing said: “By materially concealing several critical details related to Garda and CAB investigation of rhino horn trafficking, the article deliberately crafts a false narrative designed to give the misleading impression that Plaintiff O’Brien is a criminal mastermind of a global smuggling organisation.”

The full judgement was published February 22 and the appeal filed March 1.

The complaint stemmed from an article entitled “The Irish Clan Behind Europe’s Rhino-Horn Theft Epidemic”. Bloomberg LP was sued, along with the author and the editor of the piece.

The article included reporting on a September 2013 raid carried out by English police as part of Operation Oakleaf, a multi-country investigation into the theft of horns and artefacts. Fourteen people, described in court as members of the Rathkeale Rovers criminal gang, were convicted and sentenced last year in connection with a conspiracy that involved stolen items worth up to €70 million.

Among those convicted were two of Mr O’Brien’s sons, John Kerry O’Brien (26) and Richard Kerry O’Brien junior (31).

Mr O’Brien snr was arrested in the 2013 raid but never charged with any offence. In his complaint, Mr O’Brien said that his bail was later cancelled and that horns found during the raid turned out to be fake. But bail was cancelled in November 2014, while the fact they were fake was not established until July 2015, according to a report Mr O’Brien himself filed in support of his complaint. Both these happened long after the article was published.

“While plaintiff also maintains that defendants were irresponsible in not testing the rhinoceros horns before reporting that the horns were real, defendants owed no duty to uncover any error in the official investigation by conducting their own investigation,” said the judge. All of that information was privileged as it was based on an official investigation, she said.

The judge also dismissed Mr O’Brien’s complaints that the article named him “King of the Travellers” and noted that he built and sold 20 houses in Rathkeale.

“The article merely connects the Rathkeale Rovers to the Irish Travellers and plaintiff to the Travellers, but does not connect plaintiff to the Rathkeale Rovers,” she wrote.

“Absent this connection, naming plaintiff the ‘King of the Travellers’ does not carry a defamatory connotation concerning him.”

The article never said Mr O’Brien laundered money through house building and selling, as he claimed it did in his complaint, the judge found.

At the sentencing hearing of the 14 members of the Rathkeale Rovers gang last April, Birmingham Crown Court heard that seven were linked to one family’s home in the Co Limerick town.

Judge Murray Creed named the O’Brien family home in Rathkeale as being at the heart of the conspiracy.

“It was the family home for some of the conspirators . . . There were phone calls throughout the conspiracy to Rathkeale, either to business numbers or home numbers,” said the judge.

“It is a conspiracy both sophisticated, skilled and persistent, involved significant cultural loss to the UK of museum-quality artefacts and items from international collections.”