Rep. Nunes Sues News Publisher McClatchy for $150 Million, Alleges ‘Smear Campaign’

April 9, 2019 Updated: April 9, 2019

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) filed a lawsuit against newspaper publisher The McClatchy Co. and political operative Liz Mair, claiming $150 million in damages for defamation.

The suit alleges that McClatchy conspired with Mair and her opposition research outlet, Mair Strategies, to spread false statements about Nunes, the former chairman and the current ranking member of the House intelligence committee.

“McClatchy, Mair and Mair Strategies engaged in a joint scheme the unlawful purpose of which was to destroy Nunes’ personal and professional reputations, advance the goals of the dark money behind the paid-for smear campaign, interfere with Nunes’ duties as a United States Congressman, and influence the outcome of a federal election,” says the suit, which was filed April 8 in a Virginia court.

Mair was hired to sully Nunes by unknown parties, whom Nunes hopes to identify through the suit, the complaint states.

Yacht Story

Much of the suit focuses on an article published on May 23, 2018, by The Fresno Bee, a local daily in Nunes’ district that’s owned by McClatchy. “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event,” the headline reads.

The article goes into salacious details about what allegedly took place in 2015 aboard a yacht owned by a winery that’s co-owned by Nunes. It waits until after its 10th paragraph to explain that Nunes is only a limited partner who invested $50,000-$100,000 in the winery in 2006 and has had no say in how it’s run and, according to the winery’s spokeswoman, no involvement in the incident.

WineBusiness.com reported in 2016 what allegedly took place. The Alpha Omega Winery has a philanthropic arm that holds charity fundraisers each year where it auctions off a cruise on the company’s yacht, the USS Alpha Omega. On Aug. 12, 2015, a group of 25 men who won the cruise came onboard with a group of prostitutes and allegedly drank profusely and did drugs during the trip, scaring two female employees who were onboard to serve wine. One sued, and the company settled out of court.

The suit claimed the men were “important investors in Alpha,” according to The Fresno Bee, but the WineBusiness article included a statement from the winery saying that the people were not “affiliated with Alpha Omega in any way.”

“No one in the group had any personal or business connection to the winery or its owners, and no Alpha Omega staff knew anyone in the group,” it said.

The winery also said it has changed its policies for charitable donations after the incident and before the lawsuit was filed.

‘Intentional’

Nunes’s suit alleges that The Fresno Bee structured and worded the article in a way that would lead readers to believe that Nunes was involved in the incident.

“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,” the complaint says. “Furthermore, the online versions of the story are punctuated by a prominent picture of Nunes and multiple film clips of him.”

The suit also takes issue with the article’s saying that it was “unclear … if he [Nunes] was … affiliated with the fundraiser.”

“In truth, prior to McClatchy’s publication of the article, McClatchy had been expressly informed by the Alpha Omega Winery that Nunes had no affiliation whatsoever with the event,” the suit says. “There was nothing ‘unclear’ about it.”

Near the end, the article originally stated that “the winery sold wine to Russian clients while the congressman was at the helm of a federal investigation of Russian meddling into the presidential election.”

Within three days of its publication, that part was changed to say that “the winery sold wine to Russian clients in 2013”—years before the Russia probe started.

In fact, the winery stated it only sold wine to one Russian client once.

The paper hasn’t put a correction notice to the article or added any notification that the story has been changed.

“This conduct is a gross departure from accepted journalistic standards and evidences spite, ill-will and criminal intent,” the suit says.

The paper’s editor, Joe Kieta, declined to comment. McClatchy issued a statement saying the lawsuit “represents a baseless attack on local journalism and a free press” as well as “an unproductive distraction and a misuse of the judicial system.” It also noted that Nunes didn’t ask The Fresno Bee to correct the story and instead produced and distributed materials criticizing the paper for the article.

Second Suit

Nunes filed a lawsuit on March 19 against Twitter and several Twitter users, including Mair. He alleged that the users conspired with unknown donors and members of the Democratic Party to run a smear campaign against him throughout 2018.

The suit cited from Mair’s LinkedIn account that her self-described job is to “anonymously smear [her clients’] opposition on the Internet.”

Mair previously worked for Republican campaigns, but came out against Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2015, and founded a political action committee to oppose the future president. Nunes has been an ally to Trump.

Mair went on to start a non-profit that spent $36,000 targeting Nunes during the 2018 election cycle.

Mair declined to comment, but referred to her April 5 USA Today op-ed, in which she accused Nunes of “trying to stifle [her] free speech.”

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