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Online Extra: British Billionaire's Suit Over Alleged Leak Offers First Test of Privacy Law

Gilbert Chagoury, a British billionaire and philanthropist was denied a visa last year to enter the United States because, according to the U.S. government, he was suspected of supporting terrorism. Chagoury denies the allegation, saying the U.S. Department of State relied on bad intelligence. And now he's suing federal agencies that he claims leaked information about him to a reporter. His suit is thought to be the first case brought under the Judicial Redress Act, which President Barack Obama signed in February.

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Gilbert Chagoury’s story has all the elements of an international political thriller. Chagoury, a British billionaire and philanthropist who has given millions of dollars to the Clinton Global Initiative, was denied a visa last year to enter the United States because, according to the U.S. government, he was suspected of supporting terrorism.

Chagoury denies the allegation, saying the U.S. Department of State relied on bad intelligence. And now he’s suing federal agencies that he claims leaked information about him to a reporter.’His suit‘is thought to be the first case brought under the Judicial Redress Act, which President Barack Obama signed in February, and could test whether the privacy measure has much bite. The law gives citizens of the European Union the right to file lawsuits in U.S. courts against federal agencies for alleged Privacy Act violations.

According to Chagoury’s suit, filed on Sept. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, news coverage about the visa issue led banks to refuse to do business with him.

Edward McAndrew, a privacy and cybersecurity lawyer at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia who is not involved in the case, called Chagoury’s complaint “a dandy of a first lawsuit.”

“If the allegations of the complaint can be proven, it does appear that there would be a violation of the Privacy Act,” McAndrew said. “That’s a big ‘if,’ of course, because the main question under the Judicial Redress Act is whether there’s been a willful or intentional disclosure of protected information by a government agency.”

McAndrew said he’ll be watching to see if the government pushes back against disclosing information to Chagoury. There are a series of exemptions the government can invoke to shield or restrict access to documents that relate to law enforcement investigations or national security. Whether Chagoury is able to get the documents and other evidence he wants will show if the Judicial Redress Act has “teeth,” McAndrew said.

Chagoury’s lead attorney, Stewart Baker of Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, agreed that getting information from the government will be a challenge.

“There are bound to be a lot of unanswered questions about how the law will be administered and how the Justice Department will litigate,” Baker said. “But being first also gives us the advantage of helping to shape the law in useful ways and gives us the opportunity to point out where we think the government or the Justice Department is not acting consistent with the spirit of the agreement with the EU.”

Chagoury says that a Los Angeles Times reporter gained access to internal FBI records and information from law enforcement sources to write a story about Chagoury’s visa application being denied in September 2015. The Times reported that Chagoury was suspected of helping raise money for Hezbollah, an accusation that Chagoury denies.

None of that information would have been available to the reporter “but for an unlawful leak on the part of the defendant agencies,” Baker wrote in the complaint.

Unsure of who allegedly leaked information to the reporter, Chagoury sued several agencies, including the FBI, Justice Department, CIA and State Department. Representatives from those agencies declined to comment or were not immediately reached.

Chagoury claims that the leaked information and subsequent news article triggered “what amount to financial sanctions” by the government. He said that because U.S. banks are skittish about doing business with someone accused of wrongdoing, client accounts maintained on his behalf in a U.S. bank by his attorney were closed. According to his lawsuit, it’s also become difficult for him to transfer money to the United States to pay expenses on properties he owns in California.

The Judicial Redress Act was passed by Congress as part of a broader agreement with the European Union to protect data shared by law enforcement agencies across the Atlantic. McAndrew said that a lawsuit over media leaks involving a high-profile figure such as Chagoury likely wasn’t the scenario Congress had in mind at the time, but “it is a very, very interesting first example of how a plaintiff might attempt to seek redress for harms of this type.”


Zoe Tillman is a reporter for the National Law Journal, an ALM sibling of Cybersecurity Law & Strategy.

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.

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