By: Tim Korte, The Associated Press
(AP) – The mayor of Gallup in western New Mexico has filed a defamation lawsuit against the local newspaper publisher, claiming the newspaper intentionally harmed him by publishing articles about a 1948 rape case in which the mayor was implicated but never tried nor convicted.
An attorney for Gallup Independent publisher Bob Zollinger said his client is “innocent of all charges.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in McKinley County District Court, seeks compensatory and punitive damages. Sam Bregman, the attorney for Mayor Harry Mendoza, said “it is time to put a stop to Mr. Zollinger and his paper” and that Mendoza plans to hold both accountable.
A dispute between the mayor and publisher made headlines in January when a security camera showed them engaged in a fistfight in a Gallup bank parking lot.
Mendoza, mayor since 2007, faces trial June 17 on misdemeanor assault and battery charges in that case. The 78-year-old Mendoza and 60-year-old Zollinger both claim the other started the fight.
“The timing of the lawsuit is particularly strange, given Mr. Mendoza’s upcoming criminal proceedings,” said Albuquerque attorney Pat Rogers, representing Zollinger.
The dispute centers on newspaper articles linking Mendoza to the gang rape of a teenage girl in 1948 when Mendoza was 16 years old. The mayor denies the accusations.
According to the lawsuit, the Independent published an article last June 20 that indicated Mendoza had joined the Army to avoid prosecution in the 1948 case, in which authorities said seven youths were investigated in the assault of a teenage girl.
Mendoza has said he was released without being charged and that he had no part in the rape.
According to the lawsuit, the Independent published an article last July 11 that reported Mendoza had been “lying for more than 60 years about his involvement in one of the most brutal cases of gang rape in Gallup’s history.”