ABC News' '20/20' Faces Libel Lawsuit for OC Internet-Dating Story
Twenty months ago, ABC News' 20/20 broadcast an hour-long episode on an important public topic: Internet-dating crooks. But the network raised eyebrows when it included a 10-minute segment on a bitter dispute involving ex-lovers in California. Now, ABC, journalist Chris Cuomo and a woman involved don't want a jury to see a serious libel lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court.
The primetime show began with an ominous introduction. "Con men, computer crooks using stolen identities to steal your heart, and then your money," a deep male voice uttered. "Tonight, we find them."
Elizabeth Vargas—standing beside Cuomo, her 20/20 co-host—said, "Tonight, we look at what happens when crooks come off the streets and through your computer screens. They can end up taking your love, your money and even your reputation."
Next, Cuomo—the brother and son of New York governors, as well as a successful journalist—introduced the first portion of the show, saying, "Meet women looking for love only to get scammed."
• Holly chatted online with three men who showered her with compliments, and then sought money; she refused.
• Molly began an online relationship with "Jacob" and, despite having never met the identity thief, gave him "almost $100,000."
• Joan unwittingly sent $25,000 to a Ghanaian man posing online as a love-hungry U.S. Army officer.
In the second segment, 20/20 reported on a 68-year-old man who committed suicide after giving $50,000 to an online thief posing as a young, cute, Asian woman.
Up until this point, ABC's show was solid journalism and a public service. Cuomo then made the transition to the troubled, third segment. "When we come back," he said, "what happens when the guy on the other side of the keyboard moves in . . . and is keeping a dark secret?"
Before the network went to a commercial break, it aired a video of Orange County's Kelley Cahill staring at semi-nude pictures of David Williams, her ex-boyfriend. Cahill stated, "It's just amazing what he's gotten away with—and for so long."
I watched the July 24, 2011, show and, because ABC implied that Williams looted Cahill's "fortune," I remember expecting to learn he'd been a monster in the vein of the despicable con artists in the earlier segments. But their tale is different: Cahill voluntarily gave Williams an SUV, a watch and a couple of suits. So much for the con-artist angle—both sides confirm he hadn't even asked for the items.
Within days of the show airing, Williams' Beverly Hills attorney, Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, filed a libel lawsuit; while breaking news of the court action, I published a brief online commentary questioning why Williams had been included. Cahill contacted me and argued that if Williams were "innocent," he would have agreed to appear on 20/20. She also predicted an easy courthouse victory.
But after eight months and studying more than 1,000 pages of evidence-loaded filings in the case, it is more apparent than ever that ABC blew the story. Far from operating in the shadows as had the aforementioned predators, Williams met Cahill face-to-face from a personal ad on Match.com in March 2005. They dated. They fell in love. They bought an $860,000 Costa Mesa house together.
I'm not an expert on the standard practices of online-dating hoodlums, but I'd guess very few, if any, give their real names to their victims, share proceeds from their financial transactions and, though not contributing the majority of funds for a mutual home, make $41,000 in payments over the course of about a year, as Williams did. ABC insists it did not inform viewers of his financial contributions because it was "simply irrelevant" to the story about "Williams' proclivity for romantic deception."
According to the network, Williams' ruse was luring Cahill into a relationship by falsely listing his marital status as divorced in his Match.com ad. Williams acknowledges the term wasn't accurate, but it represented his state of mind because he'd been separated from and not living with his Colorado wife for an extended period of time. In the broadcast, the divorced-versus-separated angle was Williams' horrific "lie" and "dark secret" worthy of placing him on a show about Internet "con men" and "computer crooks."
But Williams told Cahill, who is divorced, the truth about his marital status within the first two weeks of their relationship, according to his lawsuit. He further states the breakup happened after he discovered her infidelity and financial irresponsibility—she'd ultimately file personal bankruptcy. According to court documents, Williams caught her cheating, allegedly in bed with a man tied to The Real Housewives of Orange County.
Williams has submitted evidence in his lawsuit that his version of the breakup is more aligned with reality. Robert Hill of Aliso Viejo stated under penalty of perjury that he and his wife went on group dates with Williams and Cahill "at least a dozen times." Hill said Cahill "was well-aware" that Williams was not yet divorced.
During the show, Cuomo also claimed to have found "at least a half-dozen other women" who'd fallen "prey to Williams' lies and infidelity," but he offered nothing more specific. This could have been a crucial moment to bolster the story. Yet, oddly, Cuomo—who left ABC for CNN in January—proceeded without introducing even one of those other alleged victims. In court, the network's lawyers contradicted the broadcast by claiming 20/20 had found four women who "fell prey" to Williams' marital status maneuverings, without enumerating the resulting horror stories.
Perhaps the reason other alleged victims weren't included on the show was because, according to evidence reviewed by the Weekly, at least two of the women described Williams as a womanizer, not a crook. One of those women, Laguna Niguel's Laura Knighten , admitted that while he lied to her about his marital status and it angered her, she views him as a "complete gentleman" in every other way.
In 2009, Knighten became friends with Cahill, who makes an income by using her dating blues to get other Internet-dating women to pay her for detective-type services at iCheckmates.com. Knighten doesn't hold a favorable opinion.
"It became increasingly clear to me that not only was [Cahill] obsessed with David in an unhealthy way, but she was [also] not being truthful about what David had done," Knighten declared in a sworn affidavit. "Kelley frequently asked me and some other women she knew to post negative messages about David online."
The 20/20 report disappointed her. "I watched the program and was shocked by how David was represented," Knighten stated in a court filing. "It was inaccurately and unfairly biased against David."
Lawyers for ABC and Cahill (who did not respond to requests for comment) attempted to kill Williams' libel lawsuit by shifting the case to a more legally favorable setting in Colorado, absurdly insisting Williams became a public figure when he answered inquiries from reporters calling about Cahill's allegations and arguing that the woman's terrible descriptions of him were constitutionally protected "opinion" speech. They also asserted the public knows it should be leery of the emotional rants of an "ex-lover."
This month, Franz E. Miller—a brainy, polite Orange County judge—refused to dismiss the matter. He overruled all 40 defense objections to evidence presented by Rufus-Isaacs and declared that, at least for these early stages in the case, Williams is a private figure with an argument that his reputation was unfairly soiled.
"[Williams] has met his burden of demonstrating [the implications of the 20/20 show] were false," ruled the judge, who wants a future jury to have the last word on who was the victim and if the network negligently propelled an all-too-common, nasty romantic breakup into a national crime story.
 Ms. Knighten's name was misspelled. Corrected March 15, 2013.
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