The property tycoon behind the Tweed’s two biggest ever housing developments had launched a defamation case against Tweed Shire councillor Katie Milne ‘to rid himself of a pesky councillor by bankrupting her’, the NSW Supreme Court was told this week.
In support of her abuse of process claim, the Greens councillor’s legal team also claimed Mr Ell’s reason for targeting her rather than the media was personal.
Mr Ell claims Cr Milne defamed him in an email she sent to various newspapers including former weekly The Tweed Echo (which was then a sister publication to The Byron Shire Echo), other organisations and individuals.
The email linked Mr Ell to murdered Sydney standover man Michael McGurk and made comments about his large donations to pro-development Tweed councillors and the state government. It also called on the community to support an independent review of his proposed development on the Tweed.
The Tweed Echo published the email but without the reference to McGurk.
Mr Ell’s Leda property group has state government approval for the development of the townships of Kings Forest on the Tweed coast and Cobaki near the NSW–Queensland border, both for around 10,000 homes.
In his statement of claim, the billionaire developer said he had been ‘gravely injured’ by the McGurk allegations, which have brought him into ‘hatred, ridicule and contempt’.
This week, APN Media reported that the abuse of process claim by Cr Milne as part of the defamation case before Justice Lucy McCallum was unsuccessful.
According to the report, Cr Milne’s barrister Tom Molomby SC claimed Mr Ell abused the process of the court by bringing the legal action against the Greens councillor for an ‘improper purpose’.
Mr Molomby, according to the APN report, told the court that action was taken against Cr Milne before the period allowed for an apology had ended and that when an apology was offered, Mr Ell had responded in an ‘oppressive and high-handed way’.
Mr Molomby said it was evident Mr Ell was not truly concerned about the letter because he never led any evidence and when the ‘big day’ in court came, he didn’t show up.
He said Mr Ell’s only concern was to ‘get a technical win… on record’.
The APN report said that Mr Ell’s barrister accepted that while Ms Milne would suffer financially if she were unsuccessful in the case, costs were ‘a product of a legitimate process’ and not a result of an abuse of process.
The report said Mr Ell’s barrister rejected any suggestion action should have been taken against the media outlet rather than Cr Milne, arguing the councillor was the one ‘peddling’ the information relating to Mr McGurk.
In an earlier hearing, Justice McCallum rejected Mr Ell’s claims that Cr Milne had implicated him in the murder of Mr McGurk but found imputations that he had a ‘scandalous association’ with Mr McGurk, paid $100,000 bail for a person ‘suspected by police of serious crimes of violence in order to advance his business interests’ and conducted his property development business ‘by employing a person with a reputation for violence’, had been conveyed by her email.
In her defence, Cr Milne argued ‘contextual truth’, essentially that Mr Ell did in fact try to influence planning decisions, and therefore that part of her email, according to an earlier Sydney Morning Herald court report, ‘swamps any damage to Mr Ell’s reputation caused by any imputations about his connections to McGurk’.
Neither Mr Ell nor Cr Milne were present at the court hearing this week.
Justice McCallum is expected to make final orders on the case in the next few days.