A $150 million defamation lawsuit from California U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes will likely soon be dismissed with prejudice by an Albemarle County judge.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nunes, a Republican, by Charlottesville attorney Steven Biss in Albemarle Circuit Court in April 2019.
The suit charged that the McClatchy Co. — which owns several newspapers across the country, but none in Virginia — conspired with Virginia-based “center-right” operative Elizabeth Mair to defame the congressman and interfere with his investigations into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian election interference.
McClatchy was later non-suited after the company filed for bankruptcy last July.
Legal experts have argued Nunes may have filed the lawsuit in Virginia to take advantage of the state’s relatively weak laws protecting journalists.
The suit cited a May 2018 article from The Fresno Bee — initially titled “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event“ — that details a 2016 lawsuit filed against Alpha Omega Winery, a California organization partially owned by Nunes.
In the suit, a former employee alleged she suffered civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and sexual harassment while working a charity cruise.
The article did not claim Nunes was on board the cruise and clarifies that it is “unclear” whether he was aware of the 2016 lawsuit or the cruise. Alpha Omega Winery later settled the woman’s suit for an undisclosed sum, according to the article.
Accusations against Mair — who initially was named alongside two anonymous Twitter users in a now-dismissed defamation lawsuit in Henrico County — were largely based on her reposting the “yacht” story and Nunes’ allegation of a conspiracy between her and McClatchy. Mair was accused of providing “false narratives” and “egregious soundbites” to the newspaper reporter, who “simply republished [them] without fact-checking them.”
However, an Albemarle circuit judge did not find these accusations sufficient and will soon formally dismiss the complaint. The identity of the judge is uncertain at this time, as the dismissal order is not yet signed.
According to a draft order written by Mair’s counsel, Nunes’ second-amended complaint failed “to adequately allege any defamation.” It is common for a judge during a civil case to request counsel to draft an order reflecting an oral ruling they gave during a hearing.
The final order, which has not yet been signed by a judge, cites a demurrer filed on Mair’s behalf, which criticizes Nunes’ lawsuit and litigious behavior. Per court documents, the draft order has been seen and objected to by Nunes’ attorney.
“Over the past two years, Plaintiff Devin Nunes has filed a slew of conspiracy and defamation lawsuits against journalists, political actors, and private citizens,” Mair’s demurrer reads. “His apparent goal is to punish and silence his political critics — and to scare others away from scrutinizing his conduct in office.”
The demurrer points to issues with Nunes’ amended lawsuit, which was expanded last year to allege that Mair and McClatchy received information about the “obscure” complaint against Alpha Omega from D.C.-based intelligence firm Fusion GPS.
Fusion GPS, which was not a party in the lawsuit, used this information to “concoct a false story that would link [Nunes] to the yacht party, cocaine and underage prostitutes,” according to the second-amended suit.
Mair’s demurrer points to a complete lack of evidence or detailing of any conversation between Mair and Fusion GPS, as well as a lack of evidence of a conspiracy between Mair and McClatchy.
“Lacking such allegations, [Nunes] relies wholly on conclusory claims and a pile of unreasonable inferences, which rest on the premise that many of his political critics are united in a vast, nefarious scheme,” the demurrer reads. “Yet different people in different places — with differing concerns, differing resources, and differing awareness of each other’s actions — can at times share the same purpose (holding an elected official accountable) without forming an illegal conspiracy.”
Nunes’ Albemarle County lawsuit will join a slew of recent legal defeats for the congressman, who also saw judges dismiss complaints against CNN and The Washington Post for similar allegations.