June 24, 2018
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Former legislator sues Republican PAC for libel

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A former Democratic state representative, who lost his bid for a state Senate seat in November, has filed a libel suit against a Virginia-based Republican political action committee claiming that ads the PAC ran before the election were “false and defamatory.”

The suit, filed last month in U.S. District Court, claims the Republican State Leadership Committee of Alexandria, Va., libeled James Schatz of Blue Hill in print and television advertisements that were mailed to voters and run on television stations in eastern Maine just days before the November election.

The suit also named as defendants companies that worked with the RSLC to prepare and distribute the ads — Crossroads Media of Arlington, Va., and Arena Communications of Salt Lake City, Utah — as well as principal officers and members of those companies.

Crossroads Media and Arena Communications did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Adam Temple, a spokesman for the RSLC, said Tuesday that the committee hopes the suit will be dismissed.

“Unfortunately, it is not unusual for a losing candidate to file this type of action after an election,” Temple said. “We view this as a nuisance complaint and hope it will be dismissed.”

But Schatz and his attorneys, Barry Mills and Sally Mills of the Hale and Hamlin law firm in Ellsworth, plan to pursue the case vigorously.

Schatz said Tuesday that he was angry about the ad campaign, which he felt had victimized him.

“I felt that they had said some pretty outrageous things about me,” he said. “I felt victimized, and anybody who has been in that position knows that’s not something you can get over easily. I wanted to hold somebody accountable.”

He added that such negative campaigning “demeans the whole process of running for public office.”

Barry Mills said Tuesday that the suit represents an effort to fight back against that kind of anonymous, out-of-state spending on Maine’s elections.

“This is Jim saying, ‘Somebody has to fight back,’” he said. “He is saying, ‘This is not the way the system is supposed to work,’ and God bless him for it.”

Barry Mills pointed out that the RSLC spent almost $400,000 in Maine, including about $70,000 on the Senate District 28 race in which Schatz ran against Republican Brian Langley and Green Party candidate Lynne Williams. Langley won the election.

The suit charges that the fliers and brochures circulated by the RSLC “contained false allegations” that Schatz, as a Blue Hill selectman, had “voted to cancel a $10,000 Fourth of July fireworks display, and that … [he] and other selectmen had improperly applied taxpayers’ fireworks funds to a political contribution or political campaign.”

That same information, the suit states, was used to develop television ads that ran in eastern Maine in the days before the election.

The statements made in the brochures and television ads “were false and defamatory in that they falsely accused [the] plaintiff of misappropriation of public funds for personal political purposes, amounting to a charge of theft of public funds as a Class C crime,” according to the suit.

The only sources of information for the ads and fliers were two newspaper articles, one in the Bangor Daily News and one in the Kennebec Journal, the suit states, adding that neither article contained information that supported the statements included in the ads.

The suit further notes that voters in Blue Hill at the annual meeting in 2008 had authorized the selectmen to spend $10,000 in support of an effort to repeal the Maine school consolidation law and also authorized an appropriation of $10,000 to help pay for fireworks and other Fourth of July celebration activities at the discretion of the selectmen.

The selectmen voted 2-1 not to fund a fireworks display in 2009, according to the suit, which adds that Schatz voted in the minority and supported funding the fireworks.

The suit claims that the fliers, brochures and television ads were created “with the intention of damaging the reputation” of Schatz and that the defendants had “acted with actual malice,” having actual knowledge that the statements were false and defamatory.

The suit asks for a jury trial to determine punitive and compensatory damages.

Meanwhile, the RSLC still could face a fine from the Maine Ethics Commission for late filing of a report on the last-minute campaign spending in October, which included expenditures on the ads against Schatz. The committee spent close to $400,000 mainly targeting five Maine Senate races.

Based on a complaint by the Maine Democratic Party, the commission ruled in October that the RLSC had failed to notify the state promptly about the funds spent on the campaign ads, but the panel deferred any decision about a possible financial penalty.

According to the commission’s executive director, Jonathan Wayne, the commissioners delayed assessing the penalties until they could receive additional information from the RSLC. Wayne said Tuesday that the matter has been scheduled tentatively for the commission’s next meeting Jan. 27.

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