Campaign commercials that were shown on cable television in Orange and San Diego counties last fall are at the center of a judgment ordering Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) to pay his Democratic Party opponent more than $45,000.
Issa, whose district includes parts of South Orange County, sued Democrat Doug Applegate the day before last November's election, alleging that the commercials libeled the congressman and hurt his reputation. The ads, Issa claimed, subjected him to “hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy because they inaccurately portray the congressman as deceitful, uncaring person and corrupt in his role as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Applegate countered that he was exercising his free speech rights with the ads and that Issa was trying to silence dissent.
In March, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss ruled that Issa didn’t prove his case, that the suit violated Applegate's free speech rights and that the congressman was thus responsible for legal fees spent by the defense.
Applegate, his campaign and his attorneys then asked for $138,188 from Issa to cover legal costs and fees. Issa appealed in May, and Strauss found that Applegate's amount was excessive. The judge has now ordered Issa to reimburse Applegate, his campaign and his campaign manager Robert Dempsey $42,500 for attorney fees and $2,842 for legal costs.
Issa, his spokespeople and his attorney are not commenting.
One television commercial used parts of an August 2011 New York Times article that was headlined “A Businessman in Congress Helps his District and Himself” and reported that Issa “has secured millions of dollars in congressional earmarks for road work and public works projects that promise improved traffic and other benefits to the many commercial properties he owns here north of San Diego.”
Issa has disputed the story ever since it was published, having once claimed that he found 13 errors in it. (The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that, of those, “three were corrected—one was caused by inaccurate information in Issa’s family’s foundation’s IRS reports, and another came from bad information from the San Diego County assessor.”)
The U-T also reported that Issa sold one of his properties at a $1.6 million loss and that the earmarked funds ultimately were not spent on the road project. While those factors were used to support Issa’s argument that he did nothing wrong—although he could not have known the funds would not be spent on the road—his lawsuit took bigger issue with the Applegate commercial including a line that was not in the original article: “Rep. Issa gamed the system to line his own pockets.” That “fake, doctored headline” left the impression that Issa used his official position to enrich himself, according to his complaint.
Strauss ruled that Applegate’s claim was accurate because Issa’s wealth had increased during his time in Congress, however.
The other commercial Issa's suit took issue with accused the congressman of opposing help for the victims, first responders and others harmed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The ad's narration said that Issa and other “tea party Republicans actually voted to deny health care to 9/11 first responders,” but the congressman's suit points out that some Democrats also opposed the legislation.
Applegate's spot was also accused of doctoring this New York Daily News quote: “The California congressman who called the Sept. 11 attacks ‘simply’ a plane crash ran for cover Wednesday under a barrage of ridicule from fellow Republicans, first responders and victims’ families.” How? By making the quote within a quote, "simply a plane crash."
Oh, U-T, please clarify again: “Congressional transcripts show that Issa said the attack was ‘simply’ a crash in the sense that it did not include a dirty bomb or an aircraft packed with explosive ammunition."
Um ... OK: So Issa voted against 9/11 compensation on grounds that there is a distinction between planes flown into buildings with or without dirty bombs and/or explosives. Got it. (Talk about your one-man death panels!)
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Strauss ultimately concluded that Issa didn’t prove that Applegate’s ad copy was untrue—incomplete, sure, but not false on its face—as the congressman did vote against a bill that would have provided health care to 9/11 first responders.
That was music to the ears of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which has been pouring resources into Orange County, where Hillary Clinton received more presidential votes than Donald Trump did, despite the region's loooong reputation for being solidly red within a deep-blue state.
Issa, who only defeated Applegate by 1,621 votes out of 300,000-plus cast in the closest congressional race in the country last November, is perceived by the DCCC to be the Orange County congressional delegation's most vulnerable Republican incumbent. Which explains the boldness of DCCC spokesman Drew Godinich saying of Strauss' latest ruling, “A judge has officially found that Congressman Darrell Issa enriched himself while in office and voted against aid for the heroes who risked their lives during 9/11. Case closed.”
I wonder if Applegate, who is running again for Issa's seat next November (as are fellow Democrats Mike Levin and Paul Kerr), will be sending the congressman a thank you for the campaign contribution?