Santan-area residents who have challenged developer George Johnson on the safety of their water and sewer are being sued by his company for defamation.
Pinal County residents Bambi Sandquist and Kristi Fisher were named in a lawsuit filed by Johnson Utilities this week in Pinal County Superior Court. They are accused in the lawsuit of posting defamatory statements about Johnson Utilities on www.newszap.com. The Web forum is run by Independent Newspapers of Arizona, which publishes the Queen Creek Independent newspaper.
Their postings were in regard to recent sewage spills from a Johnson Utilities facility that health officials say pose a public health hazard. State environmental and regulatory agencies are investigating the spills.
Sandquist posted that Johnson should pay restitution to people in the spill area, lower his water rates, which are some of the highest in the state, and require his utility to be regularly audited.
The lawsuit alleges Sandquist and Fisher posted pointed comments on the community Web site forum and helped organize a protest of a company “customer appreciation” event by carrying water bottles containing mock contaminated water, hoisting protest signs and distributing fliers to attendees.
The lawsuit says that the women used the Web site to “publicize that they intended to protest (Johnson Utilities) at the event, to disseminate water bottles bearing false and misleading labels, to wear gas masks and to carry baby dolls dyed blue.”
Sandquist is also accused in the lawsuit of slandering the company during a recent local news broadcast about the spills that spewed more than 10,000 gallons of raw sewage into Queen Creek Wash and the nearby Pecan Creek development. To illustrate her concern for potential harm to the company’s more than 20,000 customers, Sandquist placed a gas mask on a baby doll for the cameras.
“Is this so bad that we have to put gas masks on our children?” Sandquist asked in an interview Friday.
Sandquist said she was surprised by the lawsuit. She didn’t think company owner Johnson would “go after the little guy.”
Fisher could not be reached for comment Friday.
Arizona State University journalism professor Stephen Doig said the lawsuit treads on new territory.
“What can be said on blogs and boards hasn’t been litigated heavily,” Doig said. “There’s a world of trouble for people who don’t understand that when they make potentially libelous utterances on the Internet they can be held liable.”
As a public figure, Scottsdale developer Johnson would have a high burden of proof that his reputation has been stained by an effort to deliberately spread untruths on the Internet, he said.
The lawsuit could affect the willingness of residents to publicly talk about the issue, Doig said.
“All it takes is a hundred dollars to file a lawsuit,” he said. “All of a sudden that can be a chilling effect when a process server hits a (citizen) with a lawsuit.”
Sandquist said her comments on the Internet forum and the television news segment are protected under the First Amendment, and after recent problems with the utilties, residents have rallied to get answers.
Sandquist is encouraging her neighbors to attend an Arizona Corporation Commission meeting next week where commissioners are reviewing an application to expand the area where Johnson Utilities provides water and wastewater service.
Johnson has come under fire from ACC members who have expressed concern that the utility has spilled sewage and that it failed to build certain parts of its infrastructure to state environmental specifications.
Commissioner Bill Mundell said they will take public comments on the issue.
Johnson Utilities Vice President Brian Tompsett could not be reached for comment Friday.