City lawmakers gathered outside City Hall Wednesday to rally behind a longtime tenant advocate, who is facing a $20 million defamation lawsuit from a landlord group.
The Rent Stabilizaton Association, which represents landlords of stabilized apartments, filed a lawsuit in June alleging that Michael McKee defamed the organization while testifying at a City Council hearing May 2. RSA took issue with McKee’s statement that it paid off several state senators so they would vote in favor of real estate interests.
But former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her successor, Speaker Corey Johnson, said New Yorkers should not be penalized for sharing their thoughts at City Hall, and lambasted the lawsuit as an attempt to curtail McKee’s right to free speech.
“No voices should be silenced,” said Johnson. “People should be able to come to the City Council, testify — whoever they are, if they’re a private citizen — be able to say what they need to say on the record, and have that speech be protected whether we like it or don’t like it. That’s freedom of speech.”
Attorneys representing the RSA did not return a request for comment.
In a court document filed Wednesday, McKee’s lawyers argued the lawsuit should be thrown out and that evidence proving the veracity of the statement McKee made in May will be provided.
McKee himself stated Wednesday that subpoenas had been served to landlord lobbyists, several current and former state senators and their staff, which he said would provide documents proving the “essential truth” of his claim. He declined to further discuss evidence that supported his claims.
“We are not going to back down,” said McKee. “We are not going to be silenced.”
He said state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who represents the Bronx, and state Sen. David Valesky, who represents Syracuse, had received subpoenas.
In his testimony this spring, McKee named Valesky as one of three state senators who the RSA allegedly pledged $150,000 in campaign contributions to, if the lawmakers voted against two bills championed by tenant advocates in 2010, according to the lawsuit. The RSA did not go on to make the donations in question, McKee said.
A spokeswoman for Valesky said campaign funding does not impact his thinking.
“Campaign contributions do not, and have never influenced any of Senator Valesky’s policy decisions,” spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio wrote in an email.
Brancaccio also issued a statement on behalf of Sen. Klein, in which she said McKee was throwing around Klein’s name while grandstanding, even though Klein is not a party to the lawsuit.
“This is a defamation lawsuit against Mr. McKee based on his untruthful and slanderous statements and we are confident the courts will render a just and accurate finding, leaving McKee regretting all of his political machinations,” Brancaccio wrote in an email.
Craig Johnson, a former state senator who McKee said was served a subpoena, could not be reached for comment.
Beyond McKee, the RSA’s lawsuit accused three tenants organizations of defamation, including the Tenants Political Action Committee, the Metropolitan Council on Housing and the Real Rent Reform Campaign. Those groups denied the allegations and requested that the lawsuit be dropped in legal filings.