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Devin Nunes sues over ‘fake farmer’ challenge. He says dark money was behind it

Rep. Devin Nunes’ campaign is suing the people who accused the congressman of being a “fake farmer” and tried to get his ballot designation removed, alleging they conspired with “dark money” groups to injure the campaign.

The lawsuit, filed in Tulare County Superior Court on Thursday, alleges the group also targeted Nunes’ wife, Elizabeth, by seeking public records requests for her school emails that were costly to produce and resulted in harassment to innocent teachers and school administrators.

The Nunes campaign also accuses Andrew Janz’s congressional campaign of “mirroring” super PAC spending.

The lawsuit names four defendants: Paul Buxman, a Tulare County farmer; Daniel O’Connell, executive director of the Central Valley Partnership; Hope Nisly, a Reedley author and librarian; and Michael Seeley, a Los Angeles member of the political group Southern California Americans for Democratic Action.

The group asked the state to remove Nunes’ “farmer” ballot designation in 2018, but a Sacramento judge denied their request.

Nunes’ campaign alleges the defendants conspired with groups such as Fight Back California, the American Democracy Legal Fund and The Fresno Bee’s parent company McClatchy to mount a campaign against Nunes and promote “baseless” ethics complaints filed against Nunes, the Tulare Republican representing California’s 22nd congressional district.

On a recent broadcast of the KSEE24 show “Sunday Morning Matters,” Nunes warned he would file three to five more lawsuits against “dark money” groups.

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The lawsuit this week is the latest in a string of lawsuits Nunes filed this year. He’s also suing Twitter, a Twitter user behind the account “Devin Nunes’ Cow” and McClatchy.

Heather Greven, who managed Janz’s congressional campaign, called the lawsuit “hilarious.” She pointed out that the Janz campaign rejected corporate money and raised more money from within the 22nd district than Nunes.

“I hope his constituents are watching,” she said. “You’re more likely to get sued by your member of Congress if you live in Fresno or Tulare County than to see him at a town hall and talk to him about constituent issues.”

Nunes has not participated in a truly public town hall meeting since 2010. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Kapetan representing campaign

Peter Kapetan, a personal injury and criminal defense attorney based in Fresno who is representing the Nunes campaign in the lawsuit, said it is in the early stages.

As it’s spelled out in the complaint, Kapetan said the legal action is about the “improper use of money that corrupts our political process” regardless of political affiliation.

Kapetan said he did not know whether other lawsuits were in the works.

Reached by phone Friday morning, Buxman said he heard about the lawsuit but had not seen it. He wasn’t surprised by it and said he was doubtful he would hire an attorney to defend himself.

“When you stand up for a better California, for better representation, you can expect you will get hurt,” he said. “But I don’t worry about that because the only thing they can do is tarnish you somehow. If people want to believe it, I can’t control that.”

The other defendants could not be reached for comment.

Whelan doubts lawsuit’s viability

Brian Whelan, a local business attorney who helped secure the largest award in California for a defamation suit, said the lawsuit likely won’t make it past California’s anti-SLAPP protections. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”)

The defendants’ activity listed in the lawsuit, he said, are constitutionally protected – freedom of speech and petitioning the government.

“In this situation, the complaint has to do with ethics complaints filed with the Offfice of Congressional Ethics and an improper ballot designation,” he said. “Both of these fall within anti-SLAPP.”

Whelan, a Republican who ran for the 16th Congressional District seat in 2012, said the other attorney who filed the lawsuit, Steven Biss of Virginia, may not have been aware of California’s strong anti-SLAPP protections. Nunes’ other lawsuits were filed by Biss in Virginia, where anti-SLAPP protections are weaker.

California’s anti-SLAPP law likely will protect the defendants, Whelan said.

“This law was enacted in this state to prevent people from punishing those that want to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and petition the government,” Whelan said. “It’s very probable that this law will protect these people. They have constitutional rights to do these types of petitions.”

“The lawsuits (from Nunes) are targeted and have an impact of attempting to chill constitutional rights,” Whelan said. “These kinds of lawsuits can have the impact of hurting people on both sides of the political spectrum.”

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.
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