Ex-dog law chief sues activists for defamation

Pennsylvania's ex-dog law chief has filed a defamation suit alleging she was the victim of a smear campaign by "radical animal welfare activists" that included claims she traded leniency for sexual favors with an Amish kennel operator.

Former special deputy secretary Jessie Smithsaid she was tormented for five years by a "continuous and relentless campaign of systematic defamation, disparagement and false light deposition" by the three defendants in blogs, emails and public rallies, according to a suit filed Wednesday in Dauphin County Court.

Named in the suit are Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs, Jenny Stephens, founder of North Penn Puppy Mill Watch in Lansdale and Teresita Delgado, identified as a Lancaster blogger.

Jessie Smith served for 20 years as a lawyer in the state attorney general's office and was a board member of the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area before being appointed by then Gov. Ed Rendell to the new position the Department of Agriculture in 2006.

Under her watch, she said in the court filing, the legislature enacted the new dog law imposing strict standards on commercial kennels and enforcement increased. Smith alleges that the widespread "character assassination" and "baseless claims" led to her dismissal in June 2011, shortly after Gov. Corbett took office and she returned to the attorney general's office.

Smith described the defendants as publicity seeking "radicals" who were seeking to bolster their egos and coffers by attacking her and spreading misinformation and engaging in a coordinated effort that "impugned her character" and "impeded the enforcement of dog laws."

The suit says the "straw that broke the camel's back" was a blog post disseminated across social media, claiming Smith had received sexual favors from an "Amish" dog breeder in exchange for leniency in enforcement. The breeder named in the suit is Marlin Zimmerman, who is in fact an Old Order Mennonite not Amish, the suit says and operates the problem-plagued Turkey Hill kennel in Lancaster.

The blog post contained a photo of an Amish buggy and the caption "Are Smith and Zimmerman getting it on in the back of this buggy?"

Also named in the suit are Lancaster Newspapers and the York Newspapers, which published stories which reference and promoted the blog that contained the disparaging remarks. the suit says.

An attorney for one of the plaintiffs called it Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) designed to silence advocates.

"It is indeed a sad day in Pennsylvania when those who endeavor to be a voice for the exploited dogs trapped in the puppy mills are instead encumbered by a SLAPP lawsuit filed by an embittered bureaucrat," said Garen Meguerian, who is representing Stephens. "Fortunately, we still have the First Amendment in this country and in this Commonwealth, and we trust that the courts will see this lawsuit for what it is.

Smith's attorney, Andrew Barbin, acknowledged that there is a high threshold to meet in a defamation suit involving a public official, but said there is "a line that shouldn't be crossed."

"It will be up to the judge and jury to determine if that line was crossed," said Barbin.