Jury ruling ends controversial defamation case that roiled Vietnamese community

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A former South Vietnamese soldier who was imprisoned for more than two years after the Vietnam War (primarily for supporting the Catholic Church) and who was later appointed by President George W. Bush to St. Paul’s Vietnamese Educational Foundation (VEF), won a $693,000 defamation case against seven defendants whom the jury unanimously agreed ruined his business and his reputation.

Tuan J. Pham, 70, his wife Mai Vu and their University Avenue grocery, Capital Market, won the verdict March 22 in a rancorous controversy that divided the Twin Cities Vietnamese community and was hotly debated nationally on Vietnamese radio programs.

According to the Plaintiff’s Statement of the Case’s Claims and Defenses in Ramsey County Second Judicial District Court, the lawsuit arose from events that were triggered by a visit to St. Paul by a Catholic Bishop from Vietnam on December 17, 2003. During his visit to Minnesota, the Bishop was escorted by Pham, a devout Catholic, who served as the Bishop’s driver as he visited various members of the Catholic and Vietnamese communities in St. Paul.

Enroute to a meeting of Vietnamese community members at the Vietnam Center in St. Paul, the Bishop noted the presence of the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam flag flying over the center. The Bishop told Pham that he wanted to be taken to a private residence because he was under orders from the Catholic Church to avoid political situations during his visit to the United States that could lead to trouble for the Catholic Church with the Communist government in Vietnam. Pham entered the Vietnam Center and informed the Executive Director of the Bishop’s concern about the flag. A decision was made to lower the flag momentarily for the Bishop’s visit. After the meeting, the flag was again momentarily lowered while the Bishop exited the building and raised again after his departure.

Subsequently, a number of the defendants in this matter learned of the fact that the flag had been lowered to permit the Bishop to enter the Vietnam Center. Beginning in December 2003, a number of people in the Vietnamese community raised concerns about the Republic flag being lowered for the Bishop and called for the removal of the leadership of the organization that controls the Vietnam Center. They also claimed “moral turpitude” on the part of Pham and called for his removal from the Vietnamese Educational Foundation. Defendants, including Dean Do, who had at one time married one of Pham’s daughters and used the marriage and the daughter’s mental illness allegedly to extort money from Pham and Capital Market, began labeling Pham a communist and mounted a slanderous personal campaign against him.

“I feel relieved this matter is resolved after two years of suffering for me and my family. As an American, I have always believed in the laws of this country, and I had faith that the court would protect our rights,” says Pham. “It is wrong to hurt people or ruin their business with false claims. My family has suffered severely because of these baseless attacks. We brought this case for our children and their children to help the Vietnamese community work within the American system. Our young people must know that you must respect other’s rights and that you can fight for your dignity and honor and the law will back you.” Pham says if he collects the awarded damages he hopes to build two Buddhist schools and one Catholic school in his native land.

“Tuan Pham’s landmark case will change the way the Vietnamese and other immigrant communities operate as they gain full access and acceptance in the general community. The public debate must be free and robust, however, this verdict sends the message that slander and character assassination will not be tolerated under our laws,” says Pham’s attorney, Darrin Roshal. ”Mr. Pham, his family, and his business clearly suffered at the hands of the defendants in this case. They not only spread false and malicious statements about him, including false claims of criminal acts, but also forced a community boycott of his grocery business and brought it to ruin. The jury wisely and unanimously upheld his rights as an American citizen to redress those wrongs.”

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