Another Devin Nunes lawsuit: Congressman sues magazine over story about family’s Iowa farm

Rep. Devin Nunes filed another lawsuit this week drawing attention to what he believes was unfair news coverage of him in 2018, this time suing a magazine writer who detailed how the California congressman’s family had moved its farming operations to Iowa.

The complaint filed in an Iowa federal court is Nunes’ fifth lawsuit this year. It’s the fourth in which he alleges that groups conspired to damage his chances at re-election last year, and his second complaint against a news organization.

In the new case, Nunes is suing magazine writer Ryan Lizza and New York-based Hearst Magazines. The complaint centers on a September 2018 story in Esquire magazine called, “Devin Nunes’ Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret.”

The so-called secret in the story was that the family had moved its dairy operation to Iowa in a community that relied on labor from undocumented immigrants. The Fresno Bee, Nunes’ hometown newspaper, had reported about the family’s move to Iowa prior to the publication of the Esquire story.

Nunes, R-Tulare, grew up on a dairy and identifies himself as a farmer. He has not reported earning any income from a farm in more than a decade and only recently declared that he owns agricultural property.

Nunes confirmed in the lawsuit that his family has owned a dairy in Sibley, Iowa, for over a decade, but says Lizza’s and Hearst’s characterization of it as a “politically explosive secret” was defamatory to Nunes. The lawsuit explicitly calls on the court to punish Lizza and Hearst and set an example for other journalists.

“They should be punished for their unlawful actions and a very strong message needs to be sent to prevent other so-called ‘journalists’ from acting in a similar way,” the complaint states.

The complaint does not contest any facts in Lizza’s story, and it is not clear what act Nunes considers to be unlawful.

The complaint accuses Lizza and Hearst of acting as part of a conspiracy to defame Nunes, a charge he has leveled in all four of his previous lawsuits filed this year. It bases that on the spread of the story among journalists in social media.

Nunes in the complaint says Lizza’s story harmed his reputation, another frequent charge in his lawsuits. Nunes refers to the story throughout the complaint as a “hit piece.”

Nunes won his reelection in 2018 against prosecutor Andrew Janz by a narrower than usual margin. Janz raised more than $9 million for the campaign, threatening Nunes in a safe Republican congressional district.

Lizza in the magazine piece describes his feeling that someone followed him while he visited Sibley and it was illustrated with a cartoon showing Lizza sweating while watching a woman in a car trailing him.

Nunes in the complaint alleges Lizza “behaved like a sex offender or pedophile” by driving around the neighborhood looking for people to interview around the family farm.

The lawsuit alludes to Lizza’s departure from The New Yorker magazine in 2017 over an allegation of improper sexual conduct. Lizza has denied the allegation and investigations into Lizza’s conduct by CNN, Politico and other media companies determined there was no reason to keep Lizza off the air or bar him from employment.

Lizza, who now works for Politico, declined to comment.

“As with all employees, we did our due diligence and were comfortable bringing Ryan on board,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Politico, when asked if the media company had investigated the allegation against Lizza.

Nunes in March sued Twitter, two parody accounts known as Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom and Republican strategist Liz Mair, alleging the four had conspired to defame him leading up to his 2018 reelection campaign. Twitter has filed a motion to dismiss the case from the Virginia court in which it is filed, and a judge is expected to issue a decision soon.

Nunes also is suing McClatchy, the parent company of The Fresno Bee, alleging that a newspaper article about an employee’s lawsuit against a company in which he has a limited partnership defamed him. Sacramento-based McClatchy has filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Nunes has no grounds to sue the California newspaper company in Virginia.

He also is suing political research company Fusion GPS and progressive group Campaign for Accountability in Virginia. Fusion GPS is the firm that in 2016 created what is known as a “dossier” of information alleging President Donald Trump had questionable ties to Russia.

Nunes filed and dropped one more lawsuit in California in which he attempted to sue a retired Tulare County farmer and several Democratic activists who in 2018 contested Nunes’ description of himself as a farmer on ballots. Nunes, who grew up in a dairy family, won the challenge and was allowed to describe himself as a congressman and farmer.

He declared a farm worth no more than $15,000 on his latest financial disclosure statement, filed in August. The farm was not listed on previous financial disclosures.

Fresno Bee reporter Brianna Calix contributed to this report.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.