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System works when it comes to negative campaigns

Now on the checklist for any political campaign in Southern Nevada: A good libel lawyer.

Everybody knows political scuffles can get nasty and personal. Thus it’s ever been, and today’s mean-spirited contests are actually tame compared to some of the material slung historically.

But in a few recent cases, mudslinging has become the subject of court cases, and even cash settlements.

Danny Tarkanian sued state Sen. Mike Schneider in 2004, after Schneider accused Tarkanian during a re-election race of helping to set up scam telemarketing businesses and later testifying against those businesses to avoid prosecution. After a jury came down for Tarkanian, Schneider settled the lawsuit for $150,000, fearing a jury could have awarded even more.

Tarkanian lost the 2004 race in the Democratic district. 

Bob Beers, a state senator at the time, now a Las Vegas city councilman, sued his Democratic opponent, Allison Copening, and the Nevada State Democratic Party during his 2008 race, when fliers alleged he was under Ethics Commission investigation when he wasn’t. Copening was dropped from the action, since she didn’t participate in the attacks (although they helped her win the election.)

In the end, the Democratic Party wrote a letter admitting the allegation against Beers was false, and agreeing to donate $2,500 to his favorite charity, Opportunity Village.

This year, in the midst of a bitter special election that pitted Beers against Planning Commissioner Ric Truesdell, Beers filed another libel suit. Truesdell accused Beers – repeatedly – of using his position as a state senator to help a former employer escape an administrative fine back in 2007. The details are complicated, but the charge was untrue. That lawsuit is pending.

Former state Sen. Sandra Tiffany sued the Nevada State Education Association over a particularly harsh flier mailed to voters in 2006, which depicted her behind bars. (Tiffany lost that election to Joyce Woodhouse.)

Tiffany was accused (and later admitted to) ethics violations connected to her side business buying surplus state property. But while she paid $10,000 to settle her case before the Ethics Commission, jail time was never a potential punishment.

This week, Tiffany settled her case. Although there’s a gag order in place, sources told the Review-Journal’s Ed Vogel that the teacher union wrote Tiffany a hefty $250,000 check.

Talk about your favorite charity – I’d wager more than a few state senators would consider a quarter-mil (less attorney fees, even) to be a fair trade for their seat.

As a political journalist, I’ve seen enough campaign mudslinging to last a lifetime, but you won’t catch me denouncing it. People deploy negative attacks because they’ve been shown to work, since they stick with voters longer than do positive ads.

Since it’s not easy to win a libel lawsuit – especially if you’re considered a “public figure” – this list of successful actions shows the system works. Hurl a defensible charge, and you’re fine; cross the line a little, and you could end up writing a big check.

And that’s a lot better than the alternative, in which the state tries to ban untruthful statements in political campaigns. Nevada tried that once, and it was (ironically enough) Bob Beers who stood accused of a violation during his 1998 run for the Assembly. He was assessed a $5,000 fine.

The problem was, everything Beers had said in his campaign had been true, and, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, he successfully fought and eventually killed the truth-in-campaigning law in federal court.

Ultimately, the voters decide if a campaign has gone too far. And, for the still-aggrieved, there’s always court.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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