California congressman Devin Nunes has filed a $150 million defamation lawsuit in Albemarle County Circuit Court against The McClatchy Company, despite claims from the company that it does not operate in Virginia.
Charlottesville-based attorney Steven Biss filed the lawsuit this week on behalf of Nunes, alleging that McClatchy — which owns several newspapers across the country — conspired with Virginia political operative Elizabeth Mair to defame the Republican representative and interfere with his investigations into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian election interference.
The suit cites a May 2018 article from The Fresno Bee — titled “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event” — that details a 2016 lawsuit filed against Alpha Omega Winery by a former employee who alleged she suffered civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and sexual harassment while working a charity cruise.
Though Nunes, The Fresno Bee and McClatchy are all based in California and McClatchy does not operate any papers in Virginia, Biss argues the company distributes to the state physically, digitally and via broadcast.
“This case involves McClatchy’s delivery to and publication of defamatory statements in Albemarle County and throughout Virginia, and the publication of false and defamatory statements by McClatchy and its agents and co-conspirators who were, at all relevant times, physically present in Virginia,” Biss wrote.
Biss also cites McClatchy’s involvement with Moonlighting, a Charlottesville-based digital-jobs site, attaching a 2015 news release from McClatchy that calls the publisher a “strategic partner and investor in Moonlighting.”
A representative for McClatchy confirmed the company has an investment stake in Moonlighting but does not own any property in Virginia.
Why Albemarle County was chosen for the suit is not made clear in the complaint and Biss did not return multiple requests for comment or clarification.
Mair, a “right-of-center” political operative based in Arlington, attempted to “attack and smear” Nunes, according to the complaint. As a part of this effort, Mair collaborated with McClatchy to attack the congressman, Biss wrote. McClatchy was aware Mair was a paid operative, Biss wrote, but agreed to print her “preconceived storylines” anyway.
In a defamation case with a public official, the burden of proof is higher than for a non-public citizen. It must be proved that defendants intentionally and maliciously spread provably false information.
Virginia, like California and several other states, has anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation statute protections for journalists accused of defamation. Anti-SLAPP laws are intended to protect journalists and purveyors of news from being censored or intimidated through high litigation costs.
However, according to the Public Participation Project, which monitors state anti-SLAPP laws, Virginia’s anti-SLAPP laws are “adequate” whereas California’s are considered “excellent.”
According to the article from which the suit stems, a former employee alleged in a lawsuit that while working a cruise gifted by the winery for charity donations in 2015, she was subjected to sexual harassment from various men on the cruise who partook in cocaine and had engaged in relations with sex workers, some of whom appeared to be underage.
The article does not claim Nunes was on board the cruise and clarifies that it is “unclear” whether he was aware of the lawsuit or the cruise.
Alpha Omega Winery — of which Nunes is a partial owner — later settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.
On Tuesday, McClatchy released a statement addressing the lawsuit, claiming Nunes declined opportunities to talk to The Fresno Bee about his investment in the winery and that Virginia was an inappropriate location for the suit.
“Logically, California is a more appropriate location to try this case since Mr. Nunes represents a constituency in California, McClatchy is based in California — for 162 years — and The Fresno Bee is the representative’s hometown newsroom,” the statement reads. “We find it ironic that, rather than sue in his home district, he chose Charlottesville as the location for his suit, a town associated with Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father who was a strong advocate of the First Amendment.”
Scott Goodman, a Charlottesville-based attorney not involved in the case, said Nunes has grounds to sue in Virginia, per the statutes cited in the complaint, but said it seemed strange.
Goodman said he did not have specific knowledge of the case, but floated the theory that Albemarle’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, site of the deadly 2017 white supremacist Unite the Right rally, could have played a role in its selection.
“We do know that Albemarle and Charlottesville courts are the venues for other noteworthy civil and criminal cases going on now related to the August 11-12, 2017, events, so perhaps the plaintiff feels that this suit may get more widespread notice from media that are already paying close attention to suits going on here,” he said. “But it’s always odd to me that a plaintiff, who complains of injury to reputation, files a suit like this against a media company, which suit only serves to further disseminate the complained-of ‘smears.’”
No hearing dates have been set in the case.
Note: This story has been updated to reflect a clarification of The McClatchy Company's involvement with Moonlighting.