San Juan commissioner responds to TRO as runoff vote nears

One week after his political opponent filed a temporary restraining order against him alleging defamation, Place 5 San Juan City Commissioner Pete Garcia has filed a response roundly denying the allegations and seeking the judge’s dismissal of the case.

“We’re looking forward to going to court as soon as possible because we want to make sure that everyone gets both sides of the story,” Garcia’s attorney, Jesus Villalobos said shortly after filing his client’s response to the TRO Tuesday afternoon.

“Right now, I think it’s been very biased in one direction.”

State District Judge Rose Guerra Reyna granted the TRO last Tuesday after Garcia’s opponent, Marco “Markie” Villegas, alleged Garcia had been spreading defamatory statements about him with the intent to affect the outcome of the June 8 runoff election.

Villegas alleged that Garcia published a flyer, both online and in print, which he knew contained false information about him. The flyer bears a photograph of Villegas and lists nearly a dozen crimes ranging from theft and DUI, to engaging in organized crime and more. Above the list of crimes, which span nearly two decades, the flyer reads, “Is this Markie Villegas?”

Although the TRO required the flyer be removed from social media, it was still visible on a Facebook page associated with Garcia’s campaign as of Tuesday.

Villalobos said that was because his client had only recently received legal advice after being served the restraining order. “Whatever the judge said, we’ll comply with that,” Villalobos said.

In the response he filed this week, Villalobos argues that Villegas’ allegations do not satisfy legal requirements for a defamation suit, primarily because Villegas failed to notify Garcia of his complaint in writing. Nor did Villegas “make request for correction, clarification, or retraction that is stated with particularity as to each individual statement,” the response reads.

“The reason that you need it in writing and you want to follow what the law specifically provides is that so there isn’t any type of confusion,” Villalobos said.

In turn, Villegas’ attorney, Javier Peña, argued that Garcia was properly notified and asked to remove the posts from social media.

“He was notified of the defamation and requested to take it down and he would delete those comments and then blocked whoever commented on that, so we meet the elements of the defamation act,” Peña said.

Villalobos’ response also argues that Garcia’s actions are protected because he “acted in good faith, honestly, and without malice,” and that he merely posed a question.

“The other thing I think is interesting is that you understand there has never been an actual assertion made saying that this in fact happened. It’s simply, like, is this him? It’s a question,” Villalobos said.

“There is a question, not an actual assertion.”

Peña scoffed at the idea that the question posed in the flyer — “Is this Markie Villegas?” — was asked without an intent to do harm.

“I think it’s very clear the intended message that Pete was trying to get out there was that Markie had these criminal charges against him,” Peña said.

“And his weak attempt, you know, of framing it as a question doesn’t get him out of trouble.”

Peña also disputed another of Garcia’s defenses: that criticism of Villegas is allowable since his political candidacy makes him a public person.

“You have an absolute right to state your opinion. What you don’t have a right to do is state false facts about someone maliciously. And especially with something that is so verifiably false,” Peña said of the list of crimes he said are tied to another man who shares Villegas’ name.

For Villalobos, Villegas filed for the TRO to gain publicity in the election. Though the judge granted the TRO, the two sides aren’t scheduled to meet in court until two days after the election.

“So, truthfully, this is more of a publicity — trying to get some publicity out there — that’s what it’s about,” Villalobos said, adding that his client has evidence of Villegas engaging in activity similar to what has been alleged of Garcia.

Villalobos alleges Villegas has been hurling false accusations of his own, calling Garcia corrupt.

It’s something Peña doesn’t deny, as the TRO application contained a bevy of accusations against Garcia, from campaign finance issues, to vote harvesting.

Early voting in the runoff concluded Tuesday. Election Day is Saturday.

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UPDATE: San Juan candidate files TRO against incumbent opponent