North Mississippi electric carmaker GreenTech Automotive is suing an online government watch dog for libel.
GreenTech manufacturers the MyCar, a small electric vehicle, in Horn Lake. It has plans to make full-size vehicles at a facility in Tunica. Terms of a loan the state made to GreenTech call for production to start there no later than Dec. 31, 2014.
In its $85 million lawsuit, filed in Mississippi’s Northern District Federal Court, the company claims that watchdog.org’s of libeling it in two online stories. The company took particular issue with one story that quoted an investment adviser as saying GreenTech was a “fraud investment” because of the company’s use of the EB-5 investment program. The EB-5 program offers foreign investors Visas in exchange for pumping capital into an economic development project.
Will Swaim, Watchdog’s managing editor, said in an interview last Monday that his news organization stands by its reporting. Swaim said one of the stories that raised GreenTech’s ire now includes a clarification, but not an admission of libel.
GreenTech’s complaint says that says the article was responsible for investors reconsidering whether to provide $25 million for the Tunica project. An attempt to raise another $60 million has been put at risk by the news organization’s stories, it said.
A GreenTech spokesperson did not return a message seeking comment.
“They were clearly upset about our reporting,” Swaim said. “It’s interesting that the adviser clarified what he meant and we clarified the story. We thought we were being rather gentlemanly about this given what’s going on with Terry McAuliffe. (GreenTech’s) attorney said this guy had retracted his statement. He does nothing of the kind.”
Terry McAuliffe, former president of GreenTech, is in a hotly contested gubernatorial race in which his role with GreenTech has been a hot topic. That, Swaim said, is how Watchdog initially became interested in the automaker, but only after vetting McAuliffe himself.
“It was only a tertiary interest that we started looking at GreenTech itself,” Swaim said. “Our interest in this was through the back door. It was Terry McAuliffe. He entered the gubernatorial race and was telling everybody he was a major automaker.” McAuliffe’s campaign has since April referred questions about GreenTech to the company.
What raised Watchdog’s eyebrows, he added, was the company’s use of the EB-5 program. “It seems like a weird way to start an automaker,” Swaim said. Watchdog’s reporting on the EB-5 program related to GreenTech is another issue the company’s complaint raises, claiming most of it has been false.
Jason Stverak, president of Watchdog parent company the Franklin Institute, in April issued a statement to a Virginia newspaper asserting that GreenTech’s lawsuit was baseless. “We are confident that GreenTech’s claims are without merit and we will continue to report on this important story,” Stverak said.
Said Swaim: “I think Terry McAuliffe thought this was a way to shut us up. He figured he’d go after a soft target. We think the stories with each passing day become more substantial. I really think because of the aggressive nature of our reporting, they’re just pissed off.”
GreenTech has until the end of 2014 to create a minimum of 350 jobs at its Tunica facility, per the terms of a $3 million loan the Mississippi Development Authority made the company.
The loan, made in September 2011, is to help the hybrid car company with site preparation and what an MDA spokesperson called in April “other project-related expenses” in Tunica. GreenTech started making the MyCar in Horn Lake last summer.