A FORMER South Tyneside councillor embroiled in a Town Hall bid to unmask internet blogger Mr Monkey says he will fight a £56,000 court bill “every step of the way”.
After spending £214,000 of taxpayers’ money over five years, council bosses have called off their search for those responsible for the controversial blog, as reported in yesterday’s Gazette.
Ahmed Khan, ex-independent representative for the Beacon and Bents ward in South Shields, has always denied any involvement with the Mr Monkey blog, which posted defamatory accusations about borough council employees, elected members and their families.
But he still faces a bill of $97,475.96 – which equates to £56,803 – after his own counter legal action to block the council’s hunt was thrown out in a US court.
Mr Khan said he intended to defend “robustly” any attempt by the council to recover costs against him in a UK court.
He told the Gazette: “It’s a US judgement that will need to go through the UK courts.
“It is not a foregone conclusion that it can be enforced. I will challenge it every step of the way and will give new evidence provided to me.”
The Mr Monkey blog first appeared in 2008 and, a year later, the council hired Washington-based lawyers McDermott, Will and Emery to unmask those behind it on behalf of four plaintiffs – council leader Iain Malcolm, Labour colleague Coun Anne Walsh, late Conservative and UKIP councillor David Potts and local authority regeneration chief Rick O’Farrell – insisting it had a “duty of care” towards its staff.
The action went through the US courts because that is where WordPress, the online publishing platform, is based.
Mr Khan, who had his computer records and Twitter accounts accessed as part of the legal probe, later filed an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) motion at San Mateo County Court in California which called on the council to abandon its search.
But the court dismissed his anti-SLAPP motion in 2011, describing it as “frivolous”.
A subsequent appeal was rejected and, in September last year, a court costs order of $97,475.96 was made against Mr Khan.
The council confirmed it was “progressing the process” to recover the costs of the failed Anti-SLAPP motion. It said if the amount remains unpaid, recovery proceedings will be issued in the English courts.
But Mr Khan has called on Couns Malcolm and Walsh to personally pay their share of the council’s legal bill – which he claims is nearer £500,000.
Mr Khan said: “I wasn’t surprised when I heard that the case had been dropped. They had not got anywhere over a significant period of time.
“This case was always an attempt to link me to that bloke, to access my Twitter account and all for what?
“The council made a point of saying they had a duty of care to protect their staff.
“But that duty of care should not include councillors. Coun Potts is dead but Iain Malcolm and Anne Walsh should pay up – the public shouldn’t be left with the bill.”
Mr Khan also claims the cost of the Mr Monkey hunt was “nearer half a million pounds”, adding: “The council’s figure doesn’t take into account the cost they paid for technical advice from IT specialists in the UK and the US.
“It doesn’t include the cost of obtaining legal advice in the UK. The figure they cite only includes the cost of the US lawyers. It doesn’t include the significant number of man hours spent on the case by senior council officers.”
Mr Khan also backed a call from independent councillor George Elsom for council leader Iain Malcolm to resign and revealed the personal cost to himself of the case – he suffered both a heart attack and lost his seat on the council.
He added: “I have lost my seat, my health and finances have suffered. I have suffered emotionally. But despite the £500,000 spent – I ain’t Mr Monkey.”
McDermott, Will and Emery produced an 18-page dossier for the council in July 2011 which said Mr Monkey was most likely a two-man operation.
It also said a libel action would be “highly successful” if pursued through the UK or US courts.
But last month an application was successfully made by the plaintiffs to the Superior Court of California (County of San Mateo) to have the case dismissed and, to this date, no one has ever been publicly named as being behind the Mr Monkey blog.
Coun Malcolm refused to comment on calls for his resignation but a spokeswoman for the local authority responded to Mr Khan’s claims that the £214,000 bill was considerably higher and that its “duty of care” should not have extended to councillors.
She said: “We believe that the duty of care does extend to members, and in any event the costs incurred would not have been significantly lower if the members had not been parties to the action.
“No significant legal costs were incurred in the UK before the US action was issued. The net spend will be circa £157,000 when the $97,475 has been recovered from Mr Khan.
“Mr Khan’s defence is a matter for him.”