A MARONG man has been ordered to pay a total of $810,000 in damages to eight board members of the Victorian branch of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia and its CEO after he defamed them in a series of emails to members.
Karel Zegers set up false Sporting Shooters Association of Victoria websites and emails, and used them to anonymously make a range of defamatory claims against the association’s chief executive officer and eight board members from 2014 to 2018.
Zegers – a former SSAAV president – accessed the association’s mailing list and sent the emails to an estimated 4000 addresses, falsely claiming dishonest conduct from the board.
The emails were mainly sent at the height of the 2014 SSAAV election campaign.
The matter was determined in the Supreme Court on Thursday
During the trial earlier this year, Zegers continued to deny he was behind the defamatory emails despite evidence the spelling and grammar errors, and writing style, were consistent with his.
At a hearing on March 2, Zegers claimed he was “ill” and left the court during the afternoon session. It was alleged he deleted a range of emails from his computer at this time that linked him to the defamatory material.
He later admitted that he had lied extensively to the court.
Zegers’ alleged attempts to obstruct the course of justice have been referred to the Department of Public Prosecutions.
Zegers was One Nation’s candidate for Bendigo in the 1998 federal election, ran as an independent in 2001 and contested the Lockwood ward in the 2012 City of Greater Bendigo election.
‘Anonymous’ emails from Zegers left a trail of deceit
When the Victorian president of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia stepped down in 2012, Marong man Karel Zegers took on the role.
It was a lucrative position, with the Victorian association boasting close to 38,000 members who share a common goal of promoting shooting sports and protecting firearms owners’ rights.
But just months into his role, Zegers set up a ShootersVic website and published lengthy statements critical of the SSAAV board, the Supreme Court heard. He used the mailing list at his disposal to send an email to the entire membership questioning the conduct of the board.
He was not re-elected to the position at the 2012 AGM, but it was not the last that the SSAAV board would hear from Zegers.
In May 2013, a SSAAV member complained that Zegers had improperly used the SSAAV email to post “defamatory material” to the website. The matter could have been resolved with an apology, but Zegers was determined.
The SSAAV threatened to suspend his membership in December 2013, but never followed through with the threat despite Zegers’ assertion that they had done so.
In mid-2013, Zegers contacted an Adelaide-based web developer and set up another website, victorianshooters.com, with the email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Zegers contesting the 2014 SSAAV board election, he started sending emails anonymously from his new victorianshooters email address containing a range of defamatory allegations against board members. The Supreme Court heard there was confusion among members as to whether the email was an official SSAAV account.
On August 7, 2014, Zegers sent an email to members claiming the board was publishing “propaganda, false information and lies”. Another email alleged they were “bending the truth”, and financial information was not being disclosed to members.
Another email referred to capitation funds that had not been given to a branch. It turned out this referred to $6000 owing to the Bendigo branch, later found to be an honest administrative error by the board that was being rectified.
He took particular issue with the SSAAV’s chief executive officer, who he claimed was deceiving members. A further defamatory email was sent in January this year.
The court found none of Zegers’ defamatory claims had a truth defence, and they had been sent to about 4000 members. He could not substantiate the claims.
Board members suspected it was Zegers all along, given the style of the emails and the grievances.
They managed to trace the false victorianshooters website back to the Adelaide-based web developer, and he was subpoenaed in late 2017 as part of the proceedings.
The web developer contacted Zegers about the matter, and he replied by email: “Yeez this is not good. Can you hold them off? Can you deny you got anything to do with it? Can they proof [sic] that you or I are involved?”
Zegers then compelled the developer to lie in his subpoena, telling him “for arguments sake, we don’t know each other” and “we will beat the b-----ds, that’s what they are”.
Zegers continually told the court he had nothing to do with the websites and emails, so Justice John Dixon requested to have Zegers’ computer forensically analysed.
While the trial was ongoing, Zegers took “ill” and left the court in the afternoon. The analysis found emails had been deleted that afternoon.
The analysis also found a hard drive had been removed just a week earlier.
A range of deleted emails to the Adelaide web developer were recovered from Zegers’ computer referencing the email address and the false website.
His solicitors excused themselves from the case, and Zegers made a statement.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I should come clean, and stop lying,” he told the court.
“The reason that I went anonymous was that I was bullied and threatened when I had an earlier website.”
He was referred to the Department of Public Prosecutions for allegedly obstructing the course of justice.
Justice Dixon said Zegers had “manufactured fake evidence”.
“The defendant was willing to involve others in his deceit and he attempted to cover his duplicity by dissembling about the state of his computer and deleting incriminating files from it,” he said.
Justice Dixon said the court needed to take into account the “grapevine” effect, and that board members had been asked by others about the claims on a number of occasions.
“They are mostly persons whose work and life depends upon their honesty, integrity and judgement,” Justice Dixon said.
“The stings cannot be dismissed as inconsequential, a trifle or a joke.
“The use of the website names closely resembling the name of the SSAAV’s magazine caused confusion that rendered more comprehensive both the reputational damage for all plaintiffs and the injury particularly felt by some plaintiffs.
“I am satisfied that the defendant was vindictive.”
Delivering his judgement on Thursday, Justice Dixon awarded the chief executive officer $175,000 in damages, two board members were awarded $90,000, another $80,000 and five were awarded $75,000.
It was a total of $810,000 in damages.