The four Rent Board candidates who are being sued are Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Igor Tregub, Judy Shelton and Asa Dodsworth

The nephew of a notorious landlord who was sent to prison for transporting minors from India for the purpose of illegal sexual activity has filed a defamation lawsuit against four former Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board candidates.

Sid Lakireddy, president of the Berkeley Property Owners Association, said that Igor Tregub, Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Asa Dodsworth and Judy Shelton libeled him when they sent an email to supporters that overtly suggested Lakireddy was involved in the criminal case brought against his uncle, Lakireddy Bali Reddy.

On Oct. 18, 2012, in the middle of a heated election for four seats on the rent board, Tregub sent out an email on behalf of the four candidates, who were linked together on the Progressive Affordable Housing Slate.

“The Berkeley Property Owners Association President — the same guy whose family was caught in a human trafficking ring and was complicit in murder — sent out a notice to mega-landlords attacking me, for, among other things, being elected as your DNC Obama Delegate!” the email said, according to court documents. The statement was emphasized in blue in the email and was hyperlinked to a lengthy article on sex trafficking by New American Media and the San Francisco Public Press.

That article could have led people to believe that Sid Lakireddy might have been involved in the case, since it said “other unnamed members of the Lakireddy family were involved in the ring,” according to the court documents.

“This gave the impression that I was one of the unnamed family members involved in the criminal activity,” Lakireddy declared in a court document.

In fact, Sid Lakireddy, 35, grew up in Modesto and was a teenager when his uncle operated the human trafficking ring that brought young girls from Velvadam, India, put them to work cleaning Reddy’s apartments and homes in Berkeley, and raped them, according to the lawsuit.

“At the time all of this was going on, Sid was growing up in Modesto,” said Andy Cohn, Lakireddy’s attorney. “Neither he nor his family had anything to do with – or any knowledge of – what was going on in Berkeley.”

Lakireddy, whose father, a cardiologist, is the brother of Lakireddy Bali Reddy, came to the Bay Area in 1999 to attend St. Mary’s College and graduated from Santa Clara Law School in 2004, according to court documents. His uncle was convicted in 2001.

Hunter Pyle, the attorney for Tregub, said his client acknowledges that he sent out the email and did so without the approval of the other three slate candidates. Tregub apologized and reached out to Lakireddy to try to remedy any potential damage in ways other than a lawsuit, including sending out another email, but those negotiations went nowhere, said Pyle.

Pyle contends that the email does not rise to the legal definition of libel because Lakireddy is a public figure and to prove libel he must show there was malice and reckless disregard for the truth.

“It can’t just be mere negligence,” said Pyle. “When someone is a public figure you have to show malice and the level of malice rises depending on how public a figure he is.”

Laikreddy has said in court documents that he is not a public figure. Pyle disagrees and points to Lakireddy’s active role in Berkeley politics as president of the BPOA and a major backer of the Tenants United for Fairness (TUFF) rent board slate, which opposed the Progressive Affordable Housing Slate.

Pyle also contends that the statements in the email are true, which is a defense against libel. The email stated that Lakireddy is part of a family that was caught in human trafficking. That is true, said Pyle. The one area of contention is the statement that the family was “complicit in murder,” said Pyle.

“Igor is not an attorney and he used ‘murder’ in the broader sense of a wrongful death or wrongful killing,” said Pyle, who added that English is Tregub’s fourth language. He was born in Russia. “It was true or close enough to true to show there was no malice.”

The attorneys for Soto-Vigil and Dodsworth filed motions suggesting that the case be dismissed because it was a SLAPP case, or a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” The attorneys argued to the court that Lakireddy, who politically opposed the Progressive Affordable Housing Slate, filed the lawsuit to curtail the candidates’ federally protected right to free speech. Lakireddy had his attorney send letters asking that the candidates issue an apology or face legal ramifications just days before the election. That was a form of intimidation, according to the court documents.

The court rejected the SLAPP claim, but Soto-Vigil has appealed the ruling.

Court documents show how difficult it is to have the name Lakireddy in Berkeley.

“Because defendants and people as ignorant as they, smear me like this, I cannot live in Berkeley or bring up my young son here,” said Lakireddy in an affadavit. “Stirred up by people like the defendants, people in Berkeley freely accuse me, and my own nephews and nieces, of these crimes even though we may not have even been born when the crimes occurred.”

Lakireddy also said that people regularly incorrectly connect him with his uncle’s crimes. For example, he was trying to develop a large apartment complex in Modesto but was turned down for a zoning change because officials believed he was involved in the human trafficking ring, according to court documents.

The Lakireddy Bali Reddy case is a notorious human trafficking case, one that is still widely discussed, as evidenced by the Feb. 16, 2012, article Tregub linked to in his email.

Lakireddy Bali Reddy leaves court in 2000. Photo: Examiner Collection, Bancroft Library

Lakireddy Bali Reddy was one of Berkeley’s wealthiest men, owning about 1,000 apartments that generated about $12 million in rental income each year, according to the article. He had grown up in Velvadam, India, and had built a huge house there and set up a number of charitable organizations. Prosecutors discovered that over a period of 14 years he asked many young girls to work in his house or come to Berkeley to work cleaning his apartments. He then subjected the girls to “sexual servitude.” Two of his sons helped bring the girls into the United States illegally, according to prosecutors.

The ring was exposed after one of the girls, Chanti Pratipatti, 17, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in November 1999 while sleeping in a Lakireddy Bali Reddy apartment in Berkeley. He was eventually sentenced in 2001 to an eight-year sentence in Lompoc on charges of transporting minors for illegal sexual activity, conspiracy to commit immigration fraud, and filing false tax returns. He also paid $2 million in restitution to Pratipatti’s family. Lakireddy Bali Reddy has since been released from prison.

Two of his sons, Vijay Lakireddy and Prasad Lakireddy, pleaded guilty to more minor crimes. Prasad served one year of house arrest; Vijay was put on probation.

Sid Lakireddy moved to Berkeley after his uncle and cousins had been convicted, said Cohn. He came to manage his father’s rental properties in Berkeley, and eventually formed Everest Properties, a management company for his extended family’s real-estate holdings, said Cohn. That included property owned by Lakireddy Bali Reddy. In addition to apartments, the family owns a number of commercial buildings in Berkeley.

Sid Lakireddy has left Everest Properties and is now focusing on properties outside of Berkeley, said Cohn.

The FCPC commissioners review their papers before considering a fine against Sid Lakireddy and other backers of a slate mailer organization. From left: Brad Smith, Jennifer Lombardi, Patrick O’Donnell and Anna De Leon. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
The FCPC commissioners review their papers before considering a fine against Sid Lakireddy and other backers of a slate mailer organization. From left: Brad Smith, Jennifer Lombardi, Patrick O’Donnell and Anna De Leon. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Just two weeks ago, the Fair Campaign Practices Commission fined Sid Lakireddy, among others, for his involvement in a slate mailer for the TUFF rent board slate. The $4,000 fine was the largest fine levied in more than 20 years by the FCPC.

Sid Lakireddy was a driving force in raising more than $45,000 to try to defeat the slate on which Tregub, Soto-Vgil, Dodworth and Shelton ran.

Lakireddy filed the lawsuit two days after the election, after three of the four candidates he backed were defeated. Only Judy Hunt of the TUFF slate was elected to the Rent Board. Tregub was also defeated, but Soto-Vigil, Dodsworth and Shelton were elected.

Cohn said Lakireddy’s suit was not politically motivated. He could have filed it during the election, but chose to wait until after the results were in.

The court case has been a financial strain on the defendants, said Pyle. None of them have the resources of Lakireddy. Tregub recently told supporters that he had to postpone plans to celebrate a wedding with his life partner and that he may not be able to afford graduate school.

The case has cost Tregub $15,000 so far. A recent appeal to supporters, casting the case as a question of his First Amendment rights, has netted Tregub $3,651.

The lawsuit “will send a chilling message to progressives in Berkeley and across the country: don’t speak truth to power, because power can crush you in the courts,” wrote Tregub. “Don’t stand up to the corporate lobby, because they can and will engage in malicious frivolous lawsuits designed to silence the opposition.”

Landlord-backed group fined for campaign violations [05.20.13]
Commission to consider alleged campaign violations [12.13.12]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...