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Libel in the Air?
Millionaire MFA Art Guy William Koch Wants Globe to Apologize for Column





William Koch, the multi-millionaire businessman, Americaís Cup winner, and art aficionado whose "Things I Love" collection of paintings, guns, sculpture and racing boats are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is demanding an apology and retraction -- and raising the specter of a lawsuit -- over an August 9 Boston Globe column written by Alex Beam.

The column headlined "The Things Bill Koch Really Loves" offered an unflattering portrait of Koch that described a number of legal battles in his life, including the report of a past arrest for "threatening to beat his whole family to death with his belt." Referring to the Kochís "Things I Love" exhibit at the MFA, Beam wrote, "He also loves money, sex, litigation and any combination thereof."

After an exchange of letters in late August between Koch and Globe editor Marty Baron that apparently did not resolve Kochís concerns about the column, Kochís attorney Howard Cooper sent a September 9 letter to Beam asking for "an apology and a retraction from you." Cooper -- a lawyer at the Boston firm of Todd & Weld who represented Judge Ernest Murphy when he won a $2.1 million libel award against the Boston Herald in February -- also warned that "in its entirety, your story portrays Mr. Koch in false and defamatory manner...you failed to account for and report contrary and more complete information demonstrably in your possession. This is libel."

In a Phoenix interview, Cooper declined to say whether a libel suit was in the offing, stating only "Mr. Koch will consider all of his available appropriate legal alternatives." But he also said "there are four core facts in Mr. Beamís column and with regard to each and every one of them he has either knowingly or recklessly disregarded the correct version of events. Thatís actual malice." If a libel suit was filed and Mr. Koch was determined, as seems likely, to be a public figure for the purposes of that litigation, he would have to prove that the Globe acted with malice.

Speaking to the Phoenix on Monday, Koch sounded like a man in a fighting mood.

"We thought about this extremely carefully," said Koch. "You know the old adage Ďdonít sue anybody who buys ink by the barrelí is certainly true. The Globe will play lowball as seen by what theyíve printed already. I expect a real nasty fight with a real nasty skunk.

"I would rather not have any fight," Koch added. "If they back you in a corner...Iím going to come out like a snarling badger. They picked a fight with me when they had no reason to. The press in this country is almost like a third government. Itís almost like the mafia."

When contacted, Beam said he had "never received" Cooperís September 9 letter, but added that "I feel conversant with the contents of the letter." He declined to comment further.

"Why would I respond?" asked Baron in a brief interview. "They framed it as a legal matter so Iím not going to discuss it."

Catherine Mathis, spokeswoman for the New York Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe, said, "We have [Cooperís] letter and we are reviewing it." (Cooper, who won the high-profile Murphy case and is representing an official of the Islamic Society of Boston in a suit against the Herald and WFXT-TV, is making a name for himself arguing big media cases.)

The Beam column at the heart of the dispute discussed Kochís successful effort to evict a mistress from his Boston condo in 1995 and said "he later explained to a Globe reporter that he needed to toss [the woman] out in the street in time to stage a Christmas party in the condo." It recounted a family lawsuit, stating, "Koch named his invalid mother as a defendant in one of the filings and tried to force her to testify in the case." Beamís report of Kochís arrest for threatening his family stated "the criminal charges also disappeared" when Kochís "soon-to-be-ex-wife Angela dropped her lawsuit against him." Beam also wrote that "In the mid-1980s, Koch and some partners bought up 1700 ancient Greek coins that had been excavated in Turkey, and according to the Turkish government, exported illegally for sale...In one of the great climb-downs in the history of cultural plunder, Koch returned the Athenian decadrachmas to Turkey in 1999."

In his five-page September 9 letter to Beam, complete with attachments that included some previous Globe articles on Kochís legal controversies, Cooper cited and challenged what he called "the inaccurate and defamatory statements" regarding each of those incidents, pointing out for instance, a previous Globe story reporting that Kochís ex-wife "recanted allegations that Koch had threatened to kill her and his son with a belt."

"In addition to the prior articles published in your own newspaper, most of the actual facts set forth above were widely reported in other newspapers and media sources, all of which you intentionally elected to ignore in your August 9 story," Cooper wrote. "More troubling, however, is the fact that you chose to disregard information provided to you by Mr. Kochís representative, Bradley Goldstein, with whom you spoke about some of these matters on August 8th, the day before your story was published."

Goldstein told the Phoenix that in their conversation "I gave him answers. He got very argumentative with me...I said ĎI want it absolutely clear to you that Bill Koch never ever hit a woman in his life.í"

Koch indicated that the report of him threatening his family, and the potential impact on his children, angered him the most.

"When they involved my family and my children, that crossed the line," he said. "I didnít want to have to relive all the nitty gritty unseemly details of my divorce with them. I just canít let my children live with that." The charges "were nothing more than a devious part of a divorce strategy."

In his August 26 letter to Baron, Koch wrote that "this ad hominem attack" followed his refusal to grant an interview to Globe staffer Geoff Edgers and added that Beamís column "was clearly sanctioned by not only his editor but also the Globe itself.... The article was unprovoked, malicious and had nothing to do with the art exhibit at the MFA. I am still at a loss to understand why you would choose to attack someone who is trying to provide a public service for the people of Boston." Edgers also declined to comment on the situation.

In a response to Koch written on August 29, Baron said that "notwithstanding your speculation, the timing and content of Alex Beamís column was entirely unrelated to any interview requests made by Edgers or his editor...As for Beam, he is famously independent, even of his colleagues. He is also opinionated, which is his job as an opinion columnist. We neither urge opinions upon him nor make a habit of intervening to prevent him from expressing his own. Regardless of oneís view of Beamís opinion, his column in this instance relied not on gossip, as you suggest, but rather on official proceedings and court documents."

Asked for his response to Baronís letter, Koch snapped: "That was total bullshit...It was a lame response and he was trying to stick up for his employee."

While it is Beamís column that provoked Kochís demand for a retraction and the threat of possible litigation, it seems clear that Koch was unhappy with other elements of the Globeís coverage, including two Edgersís stories on the MFA exhibition and a review by Cate McQuaid.

"This is one of the few times that Iíve ever loaned an entire collection," Koch said. "I thought I was doing a good deed for Boston where I lived for 35 years. To me, it was a purely philanthropical thing."

"No good deed goes unpunished," he added. "It occurred to me that the Globe has a hidden agenda...and the hidden agenda, as far as I can tell, is probably to attack [MFA director] Malcolm Rogers and use me as an instrument."

Issue Date: September 13, 2005
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