Opinion

Nunes can directly answer questions about ugly incident on winery yacht, but will he?

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, heads to a GOP conference at the Capitol in January.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, heads to a GOP conference at the Capitol in January. Associated Press file

You are a congressman whose friend has a business proposition: Invest in a Napa Valley winery that looks to be a good bet.

You join more than 50 people who also invest in the business. Good wine is produced, and the winery even has a laudable fund-raising program for charity. Things are going great and the years roll by. Then something decidedly uncool happens: One of the winery’s employees says she was made to pour wine for rich men out for a charity cruise on the San Francisco Bay on the company yacht. Along with them were sex workers, some of whom looked to be underage. The employee heard sex acts and witnessed drug use.

The allegations are startling enough that the winery management makes changes in how the yacht will be used for charity in the future. Then comes the civil lawsuit by the employee, alleging she was sexually harassed, suffered emotional distress and no longer received work shifts once she complained.

The matter gets settled and things quiet down. That is, until a newspaper reporter finds out about the suit, asks questions and writes a story.

At this point, you face a decision. On one hand, you can give your account of what you understood the situation to be, explain how what happened on the boat was repugnant to your values, and explain why you continue to be an investor. Chances are the answers would be straightforward. The affair would likely fade from view.

alpha omega
A social media post showing the Alpha Omega yacht identified in the civil lawsuit. Fresno Bee file

But if you are Devin Nunes, you choose to be silent and offer no answers to The Bee’s questions. That lets social media fill in the blanks with either full-throated defense aimed at the messenger, or partisan attacks by the left that go off on tangents.

Here’s the point: Devin Nunes is the congressman representing the 22nd District. As such, he, like all his colleagues in Congress, is held to a different standard than regular citizens. Transparency is not a nice ideal – it is expected. Answering questions from the press and from the public, directly with no dodging, is not a quaint notion. It is fundamental to democracy. An elected representative answers to his constituents, and the press by extension, at anytime and anywhere. Perhaps Nunes has forgotten these truths thanks to his safe district and long incumbency.

By the press, we mean journalists who ask questions that get at accountability, and not talk radio or television shows that are nothing more than echo chambers for what the congressman believes.

Before those on the right get too full of the cries “yellow journalism,” let’s re-frame the scenario. Let’s say a Democrat was in the place of investor Nunes. Are we to believe that the GOP would be silent once the winery story breaks? Or would Republicans try at least to have some fun, a la Donald Trump: “There’s Mr. Party Boat. Did ya hear the one involving his yacht? It would make your hair sizzle.”

In 2016 the official Republican platform included sections opposing sex trafficking and promising that federal courts would become a model of protecting “the rights of victims and their families.” Certainly both values would apply to sex workers, who as the recent series in The Bee explained almost never sell their services out of their free will. Nunes, who is a national leader for his party and who was part of the Trump transition team, should have been well acquainted with the party platform. Maybe he did try to seek justice for those women aboard the yacht. But we don’t know because he won’t say.

Some have defended Nunes by pointing out they own stock in AT&T and don’t know everything that goes on with that company. But Nunes’ winery investment was not like your mutual fund. The winery is one of the most significant investments he owns. For his assets, Nunes lists two wineries, a bank account and royalties from book publishing. That’s it.

Nunes is a limited partner in the winery and does not manage its daily affairs. But it would be hard to imagine he did not learn of this ill-fated cruise soon after it happened since Robin Baggett, the winery owner, is a good friend of the congressman’s who invited him to invest in the first place.

As it stands, Nunes today has $5 million on hand for campaigning, more than any other Republican House incumbent in California, according to Politico. After Tuesday’s primary we will know who will face him in the fall election. It will be a difficult battle, given Nunes’ hefty war chest, strong name recognition, national stature and a district where a majority of voters are registered Republicans. Chances are Nunes can remain silent on this ugly episode, and many other questions locals have asked, like when might he have his next town hall meeting. That’s too bad. That’s not serving the people of the 22nd District.

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