On Monday, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, filed a lawsuit against The McClatchy Company in Virginia state court for the amount $150 million. According to Nunes, one of the reporters from the news agency conspired with an operative to thwart the oversight work that Nunes did into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the election interference from the Russians. According to Fox News, the lawsuit came after Nunes revealed that he would be sending eight criminal referrals to the Justice Department later this week in reference to supposed abuses of surveillance by federal authorities while the Russia investigation was taking place, including false statements that were made to Congress, and other issues.
Nunes filed a similar lawsuit in March, for the amount of $250 million, against Twitter and one of its users, Liza Mair, for allegations of defamation. According to Nunes’s complaint from Monday, he pointed again to Mair as the co-defendant, but this time, Nunes is alleging that Mair conspired with MacKenzie Mays, a reporter for McClatchy, to spread untruthful smears about Nunes, including one statement that accused Nunes of being “involved with cocaine and underage prostitutes.” When Fox News tried to reach out to Mair for comment, she referred them to an op-ed she wrote for the USA Today entitled, “Free speech means I don’t have to be nice to Devin Nunes on Twitter. So why’s he suing me?” Late Monday, a spokesperson told Fox News: “We have no comment and stand behind the strong reporting of The Fresno Bee.” In a story from March, the McClatchy DC Bureau claimed that the previous lawsuit filed by Nunes against Twitter and some of its users had simply “amplified” his critic’s visibility including the trolls like “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” According to Fox News, Mair hasn’t been served with papers, including a copy of Nunes’ official complaint.
In the new complaint issued by Nunes, he acknowledges how sensitive he needs to be while filing a lawsuit for defamation and conspiracy against journalists, but he went on to say that the defendants in the case had “abandoned the role of journalist, and chose to leverage their considerable power to spread falsehoods and to defame” Nunes for their personal “political and financial gain.” According to an interview with Fox News’ “Hannity”, Nunes said: “They need to retract everything they did against me, but they also need to come clean with the American people. Retract all of their fake news stories. This is part of the broader clean-up. Remember, a few weeks ago, I filed against Twitter — they’re censoring conservatives. McClatchy is one of the worst offenders of this. But we’re coming after the rest of them. I think people are beginning to wake up now, I’m serious — I’m coming to clean up the mess.”
The complaint filed by Nunes on Monday specifically pointed to an article written by Mays and published by the Fresno Bee on May 23, 2018, entitled “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event.” Apparently, the article talked about a lawsuit’s allegations of a yacht party in 2015 that involved “25 of the Napa Valley-based [Alpha Omega Winery]’s top investors, all men — [who] were openly using what appeared to be cocaine and ‘drawing straws’ for which sex worker to hire.” Mays tweeted that article the same day, calling out Nunes in the same sentence as “cocaine and underage sex workers.” In Nunes’ complaint, he accused Mays of “chos[ing] to emphasize the words ‘woman,’ ‘Devin’ and ‘cocaine'” while writing her tweet. But as Matt Pearce, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, pointed out, those three words only appeared bolded in the embedded tweet that Nunes included in his complaint, and not in the original tweet created by Mays. It was as if Twitter performed a keyword search for the words “Devin,” “cocaine,” and “woman.”
According to Nunes’ complaint, the yacht event wasn’t a “fundraiser,” but instead, a cruise that came from making a charitable donation, which McClatchy knew that Nunes had nothing to do with. According to Nunes’ complaint: “The McClatchy headline intentionally omitted the word ‘charity’ and labeled the event a ‘fundraiser’ in a clear effort to imply it was a political fundraising event that a politician like Congressman Nunes would naturally attend.” Nunes also pointed to another line in the story that he said was false. The quote read: “[i]t’s unclear … if he [Nunes] was … affiliated with the fundraiser.” Nunes explained that the winery actually told McClatchy that Nunes wasn’t involved with the event on the yacht. Nunes also stated that those that were on the yacht had no affiliations to the winery and they weren’t investors of any kind. Also, it’s important to point out that “online versions of the story are punctuated by a prominent picture of Nunes and multiple film clips of him,” leading to a misleading impression of Nunes being involved with the yacht event, which was spread all over the Internet by Twitter users and journalists.
Laws that concern defamation prohibit people from making provably false statements, but it also prohibits people from making false implications that could harm the reputation of the defendant. When it comes to people in the public eye, to prove defamation they must meet a pretty high bar, as well as, prove that the defendants intentionally or recklessly spread false information, rather than just negligently. In Virginia, there are strong protections in place for journalists and other actors that are accused of defamation called an “anti-SLAPP statute.” The word SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.”
In Nunes’ complaint, he stated that regardless of the statute, defamation law shouldn’t be able to cover up what he considers to be a deliberate and knowing effort to “destroy” his reputation. According to the complaint, Nunes said: “Indeed, the entire purpose of every element of the Yacht/Cocaine/Prostitutes article – the headline, the photo, the film clips, and the text itself – is to link Nunes to an event that McClatchy actually knew before publication he had no involvement with.” After the post was published, several unmentioned “stealth edits” were made. In the original article, it was said that the winery attended to “Russian clients while the congressman was at the helm of a federal investigation of Russian meddling into the presidential election.” Eventually, the sentence was edited to make it clear that the wine sales happened before the investigation into Russian occurred. The edited sentence read: “Nunes’ ties to [the winery] made national headlines last year because it was discovered the winery sold wine to Russian clients in 2013. The discovery came amid Nunes’ ongoing involvement in a federal investigation of Russian meddling into the presidential election.”
In other published articles, Mair was referenced by McClatchy as a political operative who boasts on her LinkedIn profile that she “anonymously smears” people on the Internet. Mair has also said in the past that Nunes had “issues” and she was planning on “going after him.” In an article published by McClatchy DC Bureau on July 19, 2018: “The fact is, the [Federal Election Commission] is not going to look favorably on a dude who uses his tax-exempt political entity like a personal slush fund, flying himself to Boston to watch them while apparently engaging in no activity relevant to the purpose of the political organization,’ said Liz Mair.” According to the complaint, “McClatchy failed to inform readers of Mair’s employment with Mair Strategies, an opposition research company that, in Mair’s own words, ‘smears’ targets for paying clients.”
May wrote an article on July 11, 2018, in reference to an “ethics complaint” that was filed against Nunes by the Swamp Accountability Project. The group is run by Mair, who was referred to in the article as “a political commentator who formerly worked for the Republican National Committee.” According to Nunes’ complaint, “Mays concealed the fact that Mair is an opposition research operative who admittedly smears targets, such as Nunes, for pay from as-yet anonymous clients. This was a crucial omission, since it would have revealed Mair’s motives and cast grave doubt on her credibility and veracity and on the credibility and veracity of her handlers.”
Even though the Fresno Bee is having no problems with publishing Nunes’-related content, Nunes has said that other media outlets have refused to publish similar stories. The Visalia Times-Delta wrote that they “did not pursue the story because editors decided the lawsuit’s ties to Nunes were tenuous. There were no allegations that Nunes was involved in any way with the charity event, aside from being an investor in the winery.” According to Nunes’ complaint, “The purpose of the concerted defamation campaign was to cause immense pain, intimidate, interfere with and divert Nunes’ attention from his investigation of corruption and alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 Presidential Election. The substance and timing of the publication of McClatchy’s online articles and the tweets, retweets, replies and likes by Mair and McClatchy reporters demonstrates that McClatchy and Mair were engaged in a joint effort, together and with others, to defame Nunes and interfere with his duties, employment and investigations of corruption as a United States Congressman.” The complaint continued by stating: “The attacks on Nunes were pre-planned, calculated, orchestrated and undertaken by multiple individuals acting in concert, over a continuous period of time throughout 2018. The full scope of the conspiracy, including the names of all participants and the level of involvement of any agents or instrumentalities of foreign governments, is unknown at this time and will be the subject of discovery in this action.”