Judge Sanctions Alina Habba for Misrepresenting Igor Danchenko Indictment

There are a number of reasons why Judge Donald Middlebrook sanctioned Alina Habba and Peter Ticktin for the frivolous claims they made against Chuck Dolan in the omnibus lawsuit against Hillary Clinton and a bunch of other people.

In reverse order, Middlebrook found that the lawsuit was filed for improper purpose: to advance a political grievance.

Every claim was frivolous, most barred by settled, well-established existing law. These were political grievances masquerading as legal claims. This cannot be attributed to incompetent lawyering. It was a deliberate use of the judicial system to pursue a political agenda.

[snip]

The rule of law is undermined by the toxic combination of political fundraising with legal fees paid by political action committees, reckless and factually untrue statements by lawyers at rallies and in the media, and efforts to advance a political narrative through lawsuits without factual basis or any cognizable legal theory.

He ruled that it’s not RICO, it’s never RICO (or any of the other conspiracies Habba alleged, either).

In the RICO count of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff realleged the previous 619 paragraphs, and it was a mystery who he intended to sue. In the caption to Count II, he named 22 defendants but in the prayer for relief for that count 28 were named. Added were HF ACC, Inc., the DNC Services Corporations, James Comey, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Andrew McCabe. (Am. Compl. ¶ 633). Whoever he intended to sue, Plaintiff alleged that each of them “knew about and agreed to facilitate the Enterprise’s scheme to harm the Plaintiff’s political career, tarnish his electability, and undermine his ability to effectively govern as the President of the United States . . . . ” (Am. Compl. ¶ 627).

The RICO conspiracy claims were entirely conclusory. Moreover, there is no standing to bring a RICO conspiracy claim unless injury resulted from violation of a substantive provision of RICO.

Of greatest interest to me, however, to substantiate a finding that the lawsuit’s allegations against Chuck Dolan lacked any reasonable factual basis, Judge Middlebrook laid out how Habba misrepresented the Igor Danchenko indictment to include Dolan in her conspiracy theories. Middlebrook focused closely on Habba’s claims that the pee tape allegation in the Steele dossier “was derived from Dolan.” He rejected Habba’s defense of the allegations against Dolan by pointing to stuff she left out.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers claim “nearly all” of the allegations against Mr. Dolan were sourced directly from the Indictment brought against Igor Danchenko by special counsel John Durham. (DE 270-2 at 6). But this is simply not so. As was the practice throughout the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff cherry-picked portions which supported his narrative while ignoring those that undermined or contradicted it.1 Mr. Trump’s lawyers persisted in this misrepresentation after being warned by the sanctions motion, and they doubled down on this falsehood in their response to the motion.

[snip]

Even more telling are the portions of the Indictment ignored by Plaintiff. The Indictment alleges that Mr. Dolan and others were planning a business conference to be held in Moscow on behalf of businessmen seeking to explore investments in Russia. (DE 270-2 ¶ 21). Mr. Danchenko was introduced to Mr. Dolan in connection with business activities. (Id. ¶ 18).

Significantly the Indictment alleges two other facts relevant to and, if true, fatal to Plaintiff’s claim of conspiracy.

According to [Mr. Dolan], individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign did not direct, and were not aware of, the aforementioned meetings and activities with Danchenko and other Russian nationals.

***

According to [Mr. Dolan], he [Mr. Dolan] was not aware at the time of the specifics of Danchenko’s ‘project against Trump,’ or that Danchenko’s reporting would be provided to the FBI.

And with regard to the allegation about sexual activity, the Indictment alleges that Mr. Dolan and another individual were given a tour of a Moscow hotel in June 2016, told that Mr. Trump had previously stayed in the Presidential suite, and according to both Mr. Dolan and the other individual, the staff member who gave the tour did not mention any sexual or salacious activity. (Id. ¶¶ 60-61). The Indictment does not allege that the information concerning sexual activity was provided by Mr. Dolan.

The May 31, 2022 warning letter told the Trump lawyers that Mr. Dolan had been questioned by the FBI on multiple occasions, that the Danchenko Indictment detailed his contacts with Mr. Danchenko but did not indicate he “discussed any sexual rumors with Mr. Danchenko — because he did not.” (DE 268-1 at 2). The Indictment confirms that Mr. Dolan spoke to the FBI, and not only was he not charged with any falsehood, but his statements are included within the Indictment. The Indictment contradicts rather than supports Plaintiff’s allegations against Mr. Dolan. Far from being “sourced directly” and cited “word-for-word,” (DE 270 at 5), Plaintiff’s use of the Indictment is nothing short of a deliberate disregard of the truth or falsity of their claims. This is a textbook example of sanctionable conduct under Rule 11.

Rather than express any regret, Plaintiff doubled down on his claims: “Plaintiff’s allegation that Defendant was the source of the salacious sexual activity rumor has a legitimate factual basis and is based upon a well-reasoned theory that may well be proven correct during the [Office of Special Counsel’s] upcoming trial of Danchenko.” (DE 270 at 10).

It was never to be. In the Danchenko trial, Mr. Dolan was called as a witness by the government about matters unrelated to the Ritz Carlton rumors. The government never alleged that Mr. Dolan was a source for the Ritz Carlton story. See Order, United States v. Igor Y. Danchenko, Case No. 21-cr-00245-AJT at 5 (Oct. 4, 2022). And Mr. Danchenko was ultimately acquitted by the jury.

1 The “sourced directly” claim is untrue. For example, the Indictment says: “In or about April 2016, Danchenko and [Mr. Dolan] engaged in discussions regarding potential business collaboration between PR Firm-1 and UK Investigative Firm-1 on issues related to Russia.” (DE 270-2 ¶ 23). The Amended Complaint, however, states: “In late April 2016 Danchenko began having discussions with Dolan about a potential business collaboration between Orbis Ltd. and Kglobal to create a ‘dossier’ to smear Donald J. Trump and to disseminate the false accusations to the media.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 96(c)).

The order as a whole generated a lot of attention on the failed birdsite. But there was no self-awareness that the exercise that Habba engaged in with respect to Dolan and the Danchenko prosecution was similar to what a number of journalists (and a great number of right wingers and other frothers) themselves did, when the Danchenko indictment was rolled out last year.

For example, here’s what the WaPo claimed in a still-uncorrected report last year:

Durham says Danchenko [1] made up a conversation [2] he claimed was the source of one of the dossier’s most salacious claims, that Trump paid prostitutes at a Moscow hotel room to urinate on a bed in which President Barack Obama had once slept. The dossier also suggested Russian intelligence agencies had secretly recorded that event as potential blackmail material. Trump has denied any such encounter.

The indictment [3] suggests that story came from Dolan, who in June 2016 toured a suite at a hotel in Moscow that was once occupied by Trump. According to the indictment, Danchenko [4] falsely told Steele and the FBI that the information came from the president of the U.S. Russian-American Chamber of Commerce at the time.

All four of the above claims are not supported by the indictment, much less Danchenko’s published interviews with the FBI, which attributed the pee tape claim to someone else — though it is definitely the case that Durham encouraged such unsupported inferences.

Jonathan Swan condensed the same kinds of claims that Habba just got sanctioned for in one tweet.

Just one “rumor” was attributed to Dolan in the Danchenko indictment, the most provably true one (because it came from media coverage), and one about which — as the trial established — the FBI never once asked Danchenko, in significant part because it had nothing to do with Russia.

And while Middlebrook notes that Danchenko was acquitted, he doesn’t note that Judge Anthony Trenga dismissed the single Dolan count because the allegedly false statement Danchenko made about Dolan was “literally true.” That should not have been a surprising judgment. I noted problems with that charge exactly a year ago, when I catalogued all the sloppy reporting on the Danchenko indictment.

Middlebrook’s order makes for great reading. It’s fun to laugh at Habba getting called out.

But it should bring some reflection from the journalists who made the same kind of logical jumps that Habba did, but who cannot be sanctioned for professional failures.

Middlebrook may not be done. The other defendants have asked for sanctions, as well (though without doing the same preparation in advance to ask for Rule 11 sanctions). So Donald Trump’s lawyers may yet have the privilege of paying Peter Strzok and Hillary Clinton for the privilege of having sued them.

Update: Corrected Middlebrook’s name.

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55 replies
  1. earthworm says:

    “The order as a whole generated a lot of attention on the failed birdsite…”
    delicious, thank you Dr EW!

  2. Traveller says:

    It maybe should be noted that sanctions over $1,000.00 in CA, for example, (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 6086.7(a)(3)) has to be reported to the State Bar. I don’t know what would happen next, but I would imagine there would be potential serious disciplinary action taken also. There is kind of a double hit here for these sanctioned attorney’s and their firms also. (I had to look this all up but it does seem correct). The Judge’s 19 page ruling was scathing and this too would be weighed by the various State Bar’s involved. It would not be good to be in these people’s shoes.

    • bmaz says:

      On the other hand, the CA State Bar is notorious for not doing much lawyer discipline.

      Also, I took a gander at Habba’s website. She is a SuperLawyer! Which is a designation you have to pay for. They hit me up every year, but no way am paying them for anything.

  3. joel fisher says:

    One must admit: this is what BMAZ must be getting tired of telling us:
    “He ruled that it’s not RICO, it’s never RICO.”

  4. StevenL says:

    Great reading indeed!

    My favorite: the Order’s citation of the plaintiff’s excuse for mischaracterizing Dolan as a NY resident:

    “[I]t must be noted that Charles Dolan is an incredibly common name, and Plaintiff’s counsel’s traditional search methods identified countless individuals with said name across the country, many of whom reside in New York.”

    Ergo the Charles Dolan they sued must live in NY, his direct denial notwithstanding!

  5. Peterr says:

    But there was no self-awareness that the exercise that Habba engaged in with respect to Dolan and the Danchenko prosecution was similar to what a number of journalists (and a great number of right wingers and other frothers) themselves did, when the Danchenko indictment was rolled out last year. . .

    [snip]

    All four of the above claims are not supported by the indictment, much less Danchenko’s published interviews with the FBI, which attributed the pee tape claim to someone else — though it is definitely the case that Durham encouraged such unsupported inferences.

    One would think this would inspire media figures to actually read an indictment before writing about it, rather than taking at face value the press releases and not-for-attribution whispers of self-interested officials.

    Of course, one would be wrong. But it always helps to point it out.

    • emptywheel says:

      I think they read the indictment. Just not well.

      I keep thinking I should start teaching reading for journalism, bc a fuck-ton of journalists never learn to read well.

      • Peterr says:

        Not reading well is usually worse than not reading at all, because it leads you to think you understand something you do not, and thus you misinform others.

        So, yeah, you could be right.

      • Kathy B says:

        If you are not familiar with legal writing, it IS possible to give something a legitimate review and still not understand what you think you understand. I grew up in a litigious family (it was considered amusing to some if a subpoena arrived on someone’s birthday!) so I thought I would be a reasonably informed reader. Turns out… not.

        Have appreciated the multiple legal blogs and podcasts I have followed (coupled with investing time in reading filings for cases I’m interested in).

        Thing is… I have the time.

      • elcajon64 says:

        Years ago when I started working for McClatchy (as a marketer), I took an in-house seminar called “Mathematics for Journalists”. Super helpful and I still use a lot of it today.

      • mlmcgill says:

        It’s a terrific idea. I can imagine a suite of (online?) courses: “Reading Legal Sources,” “Dockets and other Publicly Available Records,” “The US Legal System for Non-Lawyers.” It would be a significant public service!

  6. Andy Lowry says:

    “It’s fun to laugh at Habba getting called out.”

    Indeed it is! In fact, it’s also fun to just laugh at Habba generally. I’ve seen clips of TV interviews that were quite amusing.

  7. rattlemullet says:

    “But it should bring some reflection from the journalists who made the same kind of logical jumps that Habba did, but who cannot be sanctioned for professional failures.”

    Sadly this will never happen.

    Seriously, SuperLawyer, is that for real?

    Thanks for this great post!

  8. The Old Redneck says:

    This order contains some real gems. A sample:

    When suing someone it helps to know where they live, as this can have subject matter or
    personal jurisdiction significance. In this case for instance, Mr. Dolan argued that he engaged in
    no activities in Florida that made him susceptible to suit here. He filed an affidavit stating under
    oath that he lived in Virginia. His lawyers advised Mr. Trump’s lawyers of that. Moreover, the
    summons in this case indicated an Arlington, Virginia address (DE 27) and the return of service
    indicated he was served there (DE 27-1). Yet the Amended Complaint alleged that Mr. Dolan was
    a resident of New York.

    • timbozone says:

      On top of that, apparently the moronic lawyers claimed that they just looked up the name once and there were tons of Dolans in NY state so they just went with that! And that’s after Dolan had told them where he lived and they’d served him notice at where he lived in Virginia! I mean, this is the sort of thing that a scriptwriter couldn’t make up!

  9. Seashell says:

    It may be obvious what jointly and severally mean in the following:

    2. Plaintiff’s counsel Alina Habba, Michael T. Madaio, Habba Madaio & Associates, Peter Ticktin, Jamie Alan Sasson, and The Ticktin Law Group, shall jointly and severally pay a
    monetary sanction of $50,000 into the registry of the Court.

    Does it mean individually and as a group or something else?

      • DaveC2022 says:

        Sorry, I’m dense. Does jointly and severally mean the individuals are subject to a total of $50K liability combined from all of them? or that each is subject to $50K liability? If its the former, then I think that means Dolan can proceed with a claim for $50K against any one of them, and leave it to that defendent/ respondent to collect an appropriate share from the rest of them. Or is that completey wrong?

        • bmaz says:

          Joint and several does indeed mean that one and all persons are responsible for the entire amount. And that is why it has become less favored, under the thought that each party ought be only liable for their individual part.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          The counter argument is that the wronged party deserves to be made whole, and should not be deprived of that because not every one of the people who created the harm has the same level of resources. Imagine a millionaire Alex Jones in a conspiracy with three relative paupers to viciously defame others.

        • theartistvvv says:

          Likely only of interest to atty’s and those caught in IL courts, but here we are a modified contribution state re negligence (claimant must be 50% or less contributorily negligent vs. defendants in the aggregate), and defendants when found jointly and severally negligent are only liable for the amount of liquidated damages if the negligence of the individual defendant is less than 25% of the total negligence found.

          That said, in the case of punies, “joint and several” would make each of the sanctioned responsible for 100% of the total re the victorious movant, and then the sanctioned can fight among themselves for what % each pays.

  10. John Paul Jones says:

    The Internet (courtesy DARPA; thanks) is your pal:

    “KEY TAKEAWAYS
    The term jointly and severally indicates that all parties are equally responsible for carrying out the full terms of an agreement.
    In a personal liability case, for example, each party named may be pursued for repayment of the entire amount due.”

    From – https://www.investopedia.com/terms/j/jointlyandseverally.asp#:~:text=What%20Does%20Jointly%20and%20Severally,individual%20named%20shares%20responsibility%20equally.

    Possibly the law company named carries insurance to cover such costs.

  11. pleitter says:

    TDIL: Conclusory — consisting of or relating to a conclusion or assertion for which no supporting evidence is offered. But for your blog post, I might never have known this.

    (previously replied to other posts as Pam L; now using my Twitter & Mastodon handle to meet the 8 character requirement)

    [Thanks for updating your username to meet the 8 letter minimum. /~Rayne]

    • theartistvvv says:

      Because I wrote two motions to dismiss this week, my compulsion is to rewrite that as, “Conclusory — consisting of or relating to a conclusion or assertion for which no *or insufficient* supporting evidence is offered.”

  12. Zinsky123 says:

    All of this sound and fury and international intrigue and armies of lawyers and hundreds of hours of U.S. courtroom time, just to discredit allegations of Trump watching prostitutes pee on a bed in a Moscow hotel suite. Wow! How are historians going to cover this aspect of the Trump presidency?

  13. FL Resister says:

    This episode of Trump Era has classic elements of musical comedy; the sheer absurdity of Dolans living in New York therefore this Dolan must too is slap-across-the-face schtick about reaching conclusions with insufficient, and most often, no supporting evidence – a theme in all of the subplots and main plots in this absurd place.

    • Troutwaxer says:

      I’m waiting for the song where the refrain is “I live in New York” but all the examples the song cites are in Virginia.

    • Ginevra diBenci says:

      Aw, c’mon, let’s be fair to Habba, Esq. She didn’t just look for Dolans in NY. She looked for and found Dolan, C.

      QED.

      (Middlebrook’s order was the most entertaining thing I’ve read this weekend.)

  14. Konny_2022 says:

    $50,000.00 as monetory sanctions into the registry of the court plus $16,274.23 to Dolan for fees and costs doesn’t sound much for such a frivolous lawsuit, with an amended complaint that “ballooned to 193 pages, 819 paragraphs and 31 defendants,” as Middlebrooks writes on page 2 of his order. Therefore I like the very last footnote on page 19:

    “I believe the monetary sanctions imposed here are well within these lawyers’ ability to pay, and therefore I have not thought it necessary to conduct an intrusive inquiry into their finances. However, should any lawyer or law firm believe that the amount would seriously jeopardize their financial status, see, e.g., Baker v Alderman, 158 F. 3d 516 (11th Cir. 1998), that individual or firm should file within ten (10) days of this Order, under seal, a verified statement of net worth which includes assets and liabilities. In the event of such a filing, the obligation of that lawyer or law firm will be tolled until further order of the court.”

    I doubt that any of the lawyers will take advantage of this offer.

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