California congressman Devin Nunes has amended an Albemarle County lawsuit against the McClatchy Company and a Virginia-based political operative, broadening a conspiracy allegation following a judge’s order that the facts alleged in the original complaint were insufficient.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nunes, R-CA, by Charlottesville-based attorney Steven Biss in Albemarle Circuit Court in April 2019.
The $150 million defamation suit charges that the McClatchy Co. — which owns several newspapers across the country, but none in Virginia — conspired with Virginia-based “center-Right” operative Elizabeth Mair to defame the congressman and interfere with his investigations into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian election interference.
Legal experts have argued Nunes may have filed the lawsuit in Virginia in order to take advantage of the state’s relatively weak laws protecting journalists.
The suit cites a May 2018 article from The Fresno Bee — initially titled “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event” — that details a 2016 lawsuit filed against Alpha Omega Winery, a California organization partially owned by Nunes. In the suit, a former employee alleged she suffered civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and sexual harassment while working a charity cruise.
The article does not claim Nunes was on board the cruise and clarifies that it is “unclear” whether he was aware of the lawsuit or the cruise. Alpha Omega Winery later settled the woman’s suit for an undisclosed sum, according to the article.
Nunes’ complaint also alleges five other defamatory actions by McClatchy.
Accusations against Mair — who is named alongside two anonymous Twitter users in a similar defamation lawsuit in Henrico County — are largely based on her reposting the “yacht” story and Nunes’ allegation of a conspiracy between her and McClatchy. Mair is accused of providing “false narratives,” and “egregious soundbites,” to the newspaper reporter, who “simply republished [them] without fact-checking them.”
In a filing submitted in Albemarle County Circuit Court last month, counsel representing Mair described the lawsuit as a “direct assault on freedom of speech,” and argued that Nunes failed to provide adequate evidence of a conspiracy between Mair and McClatchy. Furthermore, Mair and her attorneys argue, she is being sued for sharing a critical opinion of Nunes with a McClatchy reporter and does not allege Mair committed defamation.
“Simply put, sharing political opinions with a newspaper — and then tweeting, retweeting, and liking relevant articles by that newspaper — do not suggest the existence of an illegal conspiracy,” the filing reads. “They are signs that we live in a democracy where people can express political opinions and criticize elected officials on social media platforms.”
That alone is enough to dismiss the complaint, the filing argues, and it goes on to say the complaint does not adequately allege that McClatchy defamed Nunes. The allegedly defamatory statements cited are not even pleaded with their exact wording, the filing further argued.
In a response also filed last month, counsel on behalf of Nunes urged the court not to be “fooled,” by the free speech arguments, arguing that free speech is not absolute.
“False and defamatory statements are not entitled to any constitutional protection,” the response read.
Mair has previously admitted to being paid to “smear the opposition,” Nunes’ response argues, and the McClatchy company was aware of this. McClatchy had an “axe to grind” against the congressman and thus accepted Mair’s “preconceived storylines.”
“Nunes contends that the substance and timing of the publication of McClatchy’s online articles and the tweets, retweets, replies and likes by Mair and McClatchy reporters demonstrate that McClatchy and Mair were engaged in a joint effort, together and with others, to defame Nunes and interfere with his duties, employment and investigation of corruption as a United States Congressman,” the response reads.
Albemarle County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins granted Mair’s demurrer that alleges that the facts were insufficient and gave Nunes until Sept. 10 to file a response.
In an amended complaint filed Thursday, counsel on behalf of Nunes charged that Mair and McClatchy received information about the “obscure” complaint against Alpha Omega from D.C.-based intelligence firm Fusion GPS.
Fusion GPS, which is not a party in the lawsuit, used this information to “concoct a false story that would link [Nunes] to the yacht party, cocaine and underage prostitutes.”
Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS, admitted in a book that he launched a “cyber-monitoring campaign” that targeted Nunes, according to the amended complaint. Simpson is also not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
The amended complaint then alleges that Fusion GPS and Mair knew McClatchy and the Fresno Bee “had an axe to grind,” with Nunes and alleges Mair gave McClatchy “the script.”
All of this was done in a bid to interfere with Nunes congressional investigations in 2018, according to the complaint.
“True and honorable journalists serve a vital role in our republic, informing the American people about crucial matters that affect their lives and the country at large,” the amended complaint reads. “The defendants in this case chose to leverage the considerable power of a media sympathizer to spread falsehoods and to defame [Nunes] for political and financial gain.”