Let this serve as a warning to any political candidate who might be tempted to play fast and loose with the truth in the heat of battle: The Public Disclosure Commission may not be able to get you, but you’re not beyond the reach of the courts.
A jury in King County decided this week that King County Council member Jane Hague defamed an opponent’s chief supporter in 2007. The suit stems from a campaign mailer sent to more than 20,000 homes that described a supporter of opponent Richard Pope as someone who “tops law enforcement’s list with multiple domestic violence arrests and at least one assault conviction.”
Waging war on an opponent’s supporter is dirty pool, but what’s really egregious about this case is the allegations were largely untrue. The supporter, Paul Brecht, had never been convicted of assault. The extent of his domestic violence record was the dismissal of a fourth-degree domestic assault charge and a fine for meeting his then-wife at a shopping center in violation a no-contact order. Not a proud record, to be sure, but not one that would land anyone on a post office wall.
Hague was no angel either. Earlier that year, she had spewed obscenities at police officers who pulled her over for drunken driving. She also had falsely claimed to have a bachelor’s degree and had several violations of the campaign finance laws.
The jury stopped short of finding that Hague’s mailer showed “actual malice,” the trigger for finding libel and awarding damages, so its ruling is a moral victory at best. But the hand-slapping should be enough to remind candidates that what they say matters and has consequences.