The campaign charges levied by state Rep. Tim Probst against Sen. Don Benton seem rather tame.
Probst, a Democrat who is seeking to move up to Benton’s Senate seat in the 17th District of Southwest Washington, has told voters about Benton’s 299 missed votes during his current four-year term. And he republishes information about Benton’s less-than-amicable departure as Republican state party chairman in 2000.
Again, pretty tame compared to what has become common in American political campaigns. But they were enough for Benton to employ an Oregon lawyer who sent the proverbial strongly worded letter to Probst demanding that he “Cease And Desist.”
“These statements and claims are false and misleading. They are made by you intentionally, knowingly, and maliciously done with the intent to damage the reputation of Senator Benton,” wrote Lake Oswego attorney Peter Mozena.
“These claims and statements must cease and desist or Senator Benton will consider commencing litigation against you with further notice,” the letter concludes. It also suggests that Probst might have violated state and federal election laws.
While the letter does not say how much Benton might claim should a civil suit be filed, it does assert that “The damages to Senator Benton’s reputation would exceed one million dollars.”
Probst seemed frightened enough that he sent copies of the letter to the press along with a detailed report on each of the claims and why he thinks they are true.
“These are true and relevant job performance facts,” Probst said in a press release. “It’s disappointing that Benton’s instinct is to threaten people with frivolous lawsuits.”
The voting records are compiled by WashingtonVotes.org, the same group The News Tribune uses to compile the weekly vote roundup. And Benton’s response is that he didn’t miss votes when he would have decided an issue and that the House, unlike the Senate, doesn’t use an electronic voting machine.
The letter from Mozena alleges that the machine allows members to cast votes for missing representatives but the Senate does not allow someone to be voted for when they are absent. House rules do allow one member to push the vote button for another but they must be present in the chambers to have that courtesy.
Benton’s single term as state party chairman did not end well. His board was unhappy with his move to purchase an Olympia building without their involvement. There were also complaints about Benton receiving but not spending national party money in an election that saw U.S. Slade Gorton lose a very close reelection race.
At the time, the Seattle Times quoted a state board member who was especially angry that money was left on the table while Benton was negotiating to buy a building in Olympia.
“Maybe we should name this building the Maria Cantwell Building because it will have been constructed on the political grave of Slade Gorton,” Lindsey Echelbarger said.
But contrary to statements by Democrats, Benton was not forced to resign (though his board asked him to) but instead was defeated when he sought a second term.
Either way, the threatened lawsuit is pretty uncommon and there is very little legal room for one candidate to win a defamation suit against another candidate.