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(photo credit: Associated Press)
A London judge has thrown out the four-week suspension imposed by a civil service tribunal on Mayor Ken Livingstone for abusive comments made last year to a Jewish reporter.
"I have made it clear the suspension will be quashed whatever I decide on whether the Panel's finding was correct," Justice Andrew Collins said following two days of testimony. However, he withheld adjudication on the merits of the mayor's appeal, saying the legal issues were complex and would have wider ramifications.
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On February 24, the Adjudication Panel of the Standards Board for England suspended Livingstone from office for four weeks and fined him the costs of litigation for likening Oliver Finegold, a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard, to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
The Panel found Livingstone's remarks to be "unnecessarily insensitive and offensive" and "conduct [which] was unacceptable, a breach of the [civil service] code and did damage to the reputation of his office."
In his appeal before Mr. Justice Collins this week, Livingstone's lawyer, James Maurici argued the Panel's decision was legally flawed and that the mayor was not acting in an official capacity when he abused the reporter.
The mayor has also attacked his suspension as anti-democratic saying it "strikes at the heart of democracy. Elected politicians should only be able to be removed by the voters or for breaking the law."
Panel chairman David Laverick told the court the facts justified the verdict. The sentence was also appropriate given the mayor's conduct, he argued, adding that if Livingstone had apologized for his actions early on, the Panel need not have been involved.
In February, Livingstone claimed the Board of Deputies of British Jews was pursuing a vendetta against him. "For far too long the accusation of anti-Semitism has been used against anybody who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government," he stated, and "the charge of anti-Semitism has been used to try to suppress any meaningful debate about the policies of the Israeli government."
He charged the Board of Deputies had filed the complaint, not because of "how I treated one reporter who happens to be Jewish," but because the "Board of Deputies asked to meet me to urge me to tone down my views on the Israeli government."
On Thursday, Mr. Justice Collins dismissed suggestions the dispute was over anti-Semitism. "I don't want anyone to suggest that Mr. Livingstone is anti-Semitic," the judge said Thursday. "There has never been any indication of that. That is absolutely clear. No-one can think he was making a remark like that because of anti-Semitism."
The "case is not about Israel or the Board of Deputies" but the Mayor's conduct, Jon Benjamin, the Board's chief executive officer told the Jerusalem Post.
He noted the Board was one of 24 complainants and that it had never alleged the Mayor's comments were anti-Semitic or sought his suspension.
"I think Londoners are heartily sick of this whole saga and will be frankly amazed at the lengths to which the mayor has gone in order to avoid giving a simple apology," he noted.
Livingstone "has made it plain that he will not apologize and on that at least we can take his word. I think we now move on, older and wiser," Benjamin told the Post.
While the mayor no longer faces the threat of suspension from office, if the court lets stand the finding of improper conduct, "Red Ken" would be liable for legal costs in excess of 80,000. A final decision on the mayor's appeal could come as early as next week.
Earlier this year, Livingstone was cleared of charges of anti-Semitism arising from offensive remarks he made about two Jewish property developers. In the midst of a commercial property dispute, Livingstone disparaged David and Simon Reuben during a March press conference saying, "Perhaps if they're not happy they can always go back [to their own country] and see if they can do better under the ayatollahs"; repeating the comment after reporters asked him for clarification.
On June 27, the Greater London Authority standards committee concluded that mayor's remarks could not have been anti-Semitic as he did not know the Reuben brothers were Jewish.