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A woman who allegedly prospered as a North Coast marijuana grower accuses the Sierra Club and two of its members of libeling her by questioning her mental stability, according to court documents. The defendants said their comments were only opinions and that she published the alleged libelous letter herself by attaching it to her complaint. They also say she is a public figure, because of her work as a cartoonist for a local newspaper. The case, Miles v. Sierra Club, 311109, in San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Conway’s court, is scheduled to go to the jury this week after a contentious trial. It offers a look into the operation of a revered institution, the 740,000-member Sierra Club, when one of its members decides to question how things are done. Mary Miles, a Sierra Club member, sought access to internal documents for the environmental organization’s Redwood Chapter and its sub-unit, the Mendo-Lake Group. “Meetings were unnoticed to members, conducted in secret in private, remote locations,” Miles’ attorney, Oakland solo David Hicks, said in his trial brief. “A small self-appointed clique of ‘volunteer’ officers played musical chairs with the supposedly ‘elected’ positions of power in the large regional Redwood Chapter,” Hicks added. He said Miles’ intent in asking for the information was to bring reforms and openness to the process for others who wanted to participate in the club’s activities. When Ron Guenther, chair of the Mendo-Lake Group, and Roanne Withers, the secretary, refused to comply, Miles wrote to Carl Pope, the Sierra Club’s executive director, asking him to intervene. Pope told Guenther to turn over the information that Miles sought, according to court documents. Guenther, incensed by the demand, instead fired off a letter to Pope on March 31, 1999, telling the executive director he “failed to inform” himself about the facts. Guenther said there were insufficient resources, workers and time to meet a request for 10 years’ worth of documents. Then he launched into a description of Miles. To people who know her, “she has demonstrated, under the initial pretense of an interest in the environment, a severe irrational pathological obsession with minutia [sic] details of ‘records’ of groups for unknown, inexplicable reasons,” the letter said. “According to one of these folks, Mary Miles has been institutionalized in the past and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” The letter was copied to two local newspapers, which initially did not publish it, and three North Coast environmental groups. Miles asserts that the sending of the letter was publication of libelous material. She objected to being called a “paranoid schizophrenic” and “dangerous in a physical sense.” Michael Ward, the Sierra Club’s attorney, sought to distance the organization from the letter writers. “The Sierra Club is not responsible for all actions of its alleged agents, Ron Guenther and Roanne Withers, but only those actions within the scope of their agency,” said Ward, an associate with Oakland’s Fitzgerald, Abbott & Beardsley. Attorney Phillip Berry, who represents Guenther and Withers, said Miles is a well-known public figure because of her cartoons in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and her alleged marijuana-tilling enterprise. “In 1999, plaintiff was resident in Mendocino County and since 1986, when she retired from the U.S. Postal Service, she has been a well-known large scale marijuana or ‘pot’ grower,” Berry said in his trial brief. He added that her cultivation plot was at “appropriately named Potter Valley.” Berry, of Oakland’s Berry & Berry, said although Guenther sent his letter to Bruce Anderson, publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the paper did not initially publish it. It was not until much later when Anderson wrote a column called “Crazy Mary” that the letter finally was printed in full, but only after Miles made it public by attaching the missive to her litigation, Berry said. Neither Anderson nor his newspaper has been sued by Miles for publication of the letter. Berry denied the letter was libelous and argued instead “that it contained statements of opinion or facts in which [defendants] had a good faith brief.” He said Guenther’s accusations are “clothed in common law protection afforded fair comment.” But Hicks, Miles’ attorney, said the comments about her “were more than mere hyperbole” and were presented as facts by the letter writer. “Here, Mary Miles is not suing for opinion,” Hicks said in asking for damages. “The defendants have been anything but honest, literally fabricating false and damaging statements and ascribing them to unnamed sources.” Meanwhile, the Hastings College of the Law registrar refused to say whether Miles was a third-year student, as court papers say. “We will not disclose that information,” said the law school’s general counsel, Susan Thomas. “That’s all I can say.”

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