By Raam Wong, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
A Phoenix auto parts company has settled with a former Los Alamos National Laboratory worker who claimed she was duped into buying a souped-up Ford Mustang with a lab credit card.
Before the alleged scam became known, the purchase triggered congressional hearings and sensational media coverage depicting Lillian Anaya as a rogue lab worker spending taxpayer money on fast cars.
After she was exonerated, Anaya filed a defamation suit against LANL and media outlets, as well as All-Mustang Performance and its owner.
All-Mustang settled with Anaya in November, according to court documents. John Boyd, Anaya's attorney, said he couldn't discuss the confidential settlement, while an All-Mustang attorney could not be reached Friday.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge James Browning last month gave the go-ahead for Anaya's defamation lawsuit against CBS Broadcasting to proceed.
Six years ago, Anaya was a veteran purchaser at LANL when anchorman Dan Rather and other CBS News reporters went on the air and told the Mustang story.
Anaya had only appeared in the media once before when she was listed as a survivor in her uncle's obituary. So it must have come as a shock to find herself the subject of five CBS Evening News broadcasts.
"Hey, nice car!" Rather said during the opening of one such broadcast as a picture of a shiny, black Mustang convertible flashed on the screen. "She bought it and charged it to you, the taxpayer."
As the media frenzy took hold, a frightened Anaya hid in her home with the blinds drawn and wept, according to her lawsuit.
"This was a woman who prided herself on her job and her integrity and had worked at LANL for more than 30 years and all of a sudden she's appearing in the national news as a criminal," Boyd, her attorney, said in an interview last week.
Last month, Judge Browning granted a partial victory to CBS, while at the same time clearing the way for the case to head to trial.
At issue was a central question in media law: At what point does a person enter the public arena and open herself to scrutiny?
The answer is important in defamation cases because public people — whether Brad Pitt or Bill Richardson — face a higher bar to prove they were slimed.
In seeking a summary judgement, CBS argued that Anaya's work made her a "public official." The network noted her top-secret clearance and million-dollar monthly credit limit.
But the court sided with Anaya's argument that CBS was overstating her job description. She had no employees beneath her and four layers of management above her — not the sort of position that invites public scrutiny, her attorneys said.
The court then addressed a second question: Did the controversy surrounding the Mustang story at least make Anaya a "public figure"? CBS argued it did. The law says individuals can become public figures after injecting themselves or being drawn into a public controversy. The court determined that Anaya was not a public figure during the first three broadcasts because she tried to avoid the attention.
"CBS attempted to contact her and interview her, but ... she chose to decline CBS' requests and to avoid contact with the media," the court found.
But, in June 2003, Anaya took a different tack. The lab had exonerated Anaya, and her then-attorney, Dan Cron, tried to use the media to set the record straight, according to the court.
Instead of simply answering reporters' questions, the court found that Cron was engaged in "exchanging blows with detractors and pushing the story that exonerated Lillian Anaya."
As a result, Anaya had become a public figure by the time of the final two CBS broadcasts, in October 2003 and April 2004, the court found.
That means Anaya will have to prove that, for those broadcasts at least, CBS acted with malice — defined as making statements that the network knew, or should have known, were false.
Acting in malice
The court found sufficient evidence that CBS and its reporter may have done just that during the final two broadcasts.
By the October 2003 program, reporter Sharyl Attkisson had a "mountain of evidence that there was no car," according to the court.
The court pointed to the lab's explanation for the Mustang:
In May 2002, Anaya phoned what she believed to be an established lab vendor to order 21 pressure transducers. LANL's business records were outdated, and Anaya unintentionally reached All-Mustang, which had acquired the vendor's old phone number.
Thinking she was dealing with Fluid Conditioning, Anaya faxed All-Mustang her order. The company then charged her card nearly $30,000.
But despite the exoneration by LANL, CBS ran subsequent reports that implicated Anaya.
The October broadcast included an interview with All-Mustang owner Tom Thompson who claimed: "She wanted a late-model Mustang, black convertible, with, like, black leather interior. She wanted it loaded up with all the options, and then she wanted to make it go fast."
The broadcast included LANL's explanation for the mix-up. But the court found CBS' description of the LANL story made it sound "ridiculous."
"The Court believes that, after the wrong-number theory came out, and after LANL officially exonerated Lillian Anaya, Attkisson should have become more cognizant of the possibility that Lillian Anaya was innocent," Judge Browning wrote.
The court also found evidence of malice in Rather's April 2004 statement: "She's at it again. A government worker using your tax dollars for more questionable purchases."
The anchorman was referring to an Inspector General report that reviewed past questionable transactions by Anaya and, for the most part, confirmed her innocence.
Yet CBS made it sound as if Anaya was continuing her extravagant spending in the wake of her exoneration, the court found.
Attkisson is a defendant in the case, while Rather is not. An attorney for CBS in Santa Fe could not be reached Friday.
Another defendant in the case, the University of California, the lab's former manager, agreed to pay Anaya $475,000 in 2006 on behalf of the school and three former lab employees named in the suit.