FOUR former directors of a Victorian irrigation authority have been awarded a total of $295,000 in damages.A Supreme Court jury in August found Frank Dimasi, Nancy Prevedello, Don Marciano and Jim Belbin were defamed by Lower Murray Water when it posted a letter from then Water Minister Tim Holding on its website in 2008.
Mr Holding announced on August 15, 2008, that he had sacked the grower-elected First Mildura Irrigation Trust board, which was later wound up and its customers and assets transferred to Lower Murray Water.
A four-week-long civil trial in the Supreme Court at Mildura heard Lower Murray Water had posted the letter - in which Mr Holding explained his actions and accused the former FMIT board members of breaking the law by investing government funds without approval - on its website.
The letter stayed on the website until 2010, despite a request from Mr Dimasi that it be removed.
Handing down his 130-page decision via videolink from Melbourne this morning, Justice Stephen Kaye said each of the four plaintiffs enjoyed a high reputation in the Mildura district before the publication of the Minister's letter by the defendant on the internet in 2010.
''The allegations involved grave aspersions on the plaintiffs' reputations for civic responsibility, probity and integrity,'' he said.
''The imputations were not coincidental to the matter published by the defendant; on the contrary, they were central to the topic addressed in the letter, the closure of FMIT.
''They were made by a public statutory authority, which itself exercised important responsibilities in the geographic area in which the matter was published by it.
''As such, the dissemination of the allegations, contained in those imputations, would be calculated to cause significant damage to the reputations of each of the four plaintiffs.''
The allegations included that the board members broke the law by investing $2.2 million of Victorian Government money without Treasury approval, acted irresponsibly and outside the law by investing money loaned from the Victorian Government in the United States sub-prime mortgage market and approved secret last minute adjustments to senior management contracts in the event of the FMIT being taken over.
Justice Kaye said he had taken into account that the original publication of the letter, by Mr Holding to the former customers of FMIT, and by the Sunraysia Daily newspaper to the Mildura public at large, in 2008, had already harmed the plaintiffs' reputations.
''Nevertheless, for the reasons I have stated, I am persuaded that the republication of the letter by the defendant in 2010 did, by the process involved in the 'grapevine' effect, occasion additional harm to the high reputations of the plaintiffs.
''The plaintiffs had already sustained a grievous blow, both to their reputations, and to their feelings, as a consequence of the publication of Mr Holding's letter in 2008.
''The publication of it by the defendant on its website in 2010 was a significant aggravation, both of the damage to the plaintiffs' reputations, and of their feelings of distress and hurt.
''In addition, the fact that the letter was published on the internet left the plaintiffs feeling vulnerable and powerless. Unlike other media publications, such as in the newspaper and on the television, the letter was not part of the 24-hour news cycle; rather, it was published, and left, by the defendant on the internet for a substantial period of time. The plaintiffs were not, at that time, to know who had, and who had not, seen and read the letter on the internet.''
Mr Belbin, Mr Di Masi and Mr Marciano were each awarded $70,000 damages.
Mrs Prevedello, who had been an FMIT director for just a month before the board was sacked, was awarded $85,000 damages.
It is understood that a confidential settlement was reached with a fifth board member, Ang Panagiotaros, and a sixth member, Frank Primorano, declined to join the defamation action.