NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik in a lawsuit that accused her of defamation for a campaign advertisement targeting rival Diane Black.
The suit was filed by Aegis Sciences Corp., a drug-testing company owned by David Black. He is the husband of Diane Black, who won the election for the 6th District seat.
The 2010 advertisement showed Diane Black, who was then a state senator, handing a $1 million check from “Tennessee Taxpayers” to her husband.
In an opinion filed this week, a three-judge panel of the Appeals Court ruled 2-1 for Zelenik. The court found that the advertisement portrayed Diane Black as a big spender but did not imply that Aegis received graft.
A spokeswoman for Aegis declined to comment.
Speculation is already afoot about potential challengers to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in 2014, though all are saying, more or less, that it’s too early to talk about it.
The Murfreesboro Daily News Journal has quotes from state Sen. Jim Tracy, Lou Ann Zelenik and state Rep. Joe Carr about the possibility of entering the Republican primary… and speculation about another Democratic run at the seat. “We are less than 18 months away from primary season, so it will be here before you know it,” said Gabriel Fancher, chairman of the Rutherford County Young Republicans and an executive committee member of the county’s GOP. “The thing about DesJarlais is you can’t knock him on his voting record, but he does have that past that haunts him. People hold their representative to a hire standard. As long as they do, his past will continue to haunt him.”
The Tennessean adds the name of Forrest Shoaf, a lawyer and retired business executive who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination to the 7th Congressional District seat back in 2002 (losing to Marsha Blackburn). “We’ve worked a long time to win this (4th Congressional District) seat and I don’t want to lose it,” said retired Cracker Barrel executive Forrest Shoaf of Lebanon.
“I’m giving strong thought to running in the (2014) primary.”
If not Shoaf, it will be someone, several Washington political observers said. And none saw the Jasper Republican, just re-elected to a second term, making it to a third.
“It’s a fairly safe prediction that the congressman’s tenure will end in the GOP primary in 2014. His affairs could fill a whole season of a soap opera, and that’s not acceptable for the ‘family values’ party in the Bible Belt,” said University of Virginia political expert Larry Sabato.
USA Today has taken note of the Super PAC spending in Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District Republican primary as an example of the influence such groups can have. Two outside political action committees that have unleashed TV, radio and billboard advertising attacking Tennessee Rep. Diane Black’s congressional record are funded entirely by a businessman with close ties to her rival in next week’s Republican primary.
Andrew Miller, a Nashville health care investor, told USA TODAY he has pumped more than $260,000 into the two super PACs — Citizens 4 Ethics in Government and the Congressional Elections PAC — running anti-Black ads.
Miller previously served as finance chairman for the campaign of Black’s challenger, Lou Ann Zelenik. Miller also is on the board of the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, whose top issues include opposing the spread of Islamic Sharia law. Zelenik is the group’s former executive director.
Miller said his spending helps an underfunded challenger compete against an incumbent.
“We’ve got to hold these elected officials accountable, and one of the most interesting ways has been the advent of super PACs,” he said. “The playing field can be leveled in ways it wasn’t before.”
The last-minute spending blitz by Miller in this little-noticed Tennessee House race underscores the potential of a handful of wealthy donors to shape November’s congressional and White House battles. Super PACs are a relatively new weapon in politics, unleashed by a pair of 2010 federal court rulings that allow unions, corporations and wealthy individuals to band together to raise and spend unlimited amounts in federal races.
Nearly three dozen super PACs that have raised at least $100,000 in the 2012 election have five or fewer donors, a USA TODAY analysis shows. Nearly a third of all contributions to the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future — the super PAC that has raised the most money — have come in chunks of least $1 million each.
Campaign-finance experts say super PACs’ greatest influence may be felt in House contests. In 2010, the average winner of a House race spent $1.4 million — a tiny fraction of the $730 million President Obama spent to win the White House two years earlier, according to data compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik failed to appear last week for a legal deposition, though The Tennessean reports that her attorney said she had permission not to be there. Still, lawyers for a Middle Tennessee newspaper publisher have asked a Wilson County judge to weigh a criminal contempt charge after Zelenik did not turn up July 12 to testify in a suit involving the paper’s finances.
Chancellor C.K. Smith responded to the skipped appointment by signing an order requiring Zelenik to appear in court in September to face a potential criminal contempt charge. But Zelenik’s attorney, Lee Davies, says she had permission to miss the deposition because of conflicts with her campaign schedule.
“She did exactly what the judge asked her to do, so I’m at a loss,” Davies said.
The possibility that Zelenik could face a criminal contempt charge — and potential punishment — was first reported Thursday by the Nashville City Paper (and Nashville Post, link HERE). But it’s unclear whether the charge will stand, or even if it was seriously contemplated in the first place.
Zelenik faces punishment even though she appeared at the first date scheduled for the deposition, according to court filings. Zelenik also is not a direct party to the case, a dispute between state Sen. Mae Beavers and Kathryn Belle, publisher of the Macon County Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Lafayette, Tenn.
Beavers and her husband, Jerry, sued Belle in December, saying she owes the couple $50,000 and interest on a loan given to her Main Street Media LLC to buy the newspaper. Belle says the money was an investment in the newspaper.
Politically motivated slander suits are nothing new in Tennessee, and Davidson County Circuit Judge Joe P. Binkley seems to have found more of the same in Black v. Zelenik, going so far as to state that charges of U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s wrongdoing are “substantially true.”
So reports the Murfreesboro Post in an article that the Black campaign sharply criticizes (see end of post): David Black, husband of Diane Black (R-Gallatin), and his drug testing firm, Aegis Sciences Corporation, filed suit in the midst of a hotly contested U.S. House primary campaign against Lou Ann Zelenik in 2010 after her campaign began airing ads that accused Black of steering millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts to her husband’s firm through her position as a state senator, in violation of state law.
“The communication was true or at least substantially true,” reads the April ruling by Binkley, who sided with Zelenik and summarily dismissed Black’s lawsuit as frivolous.
Black’s firm appealed the ruling in late April, and the matter is ongoing in the midst of another primary battle with Zelenik for the Republican nomination in Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District.
Documents reveal accusations of Black and her husband profiting from her political power in the state senate were nothing new, having been copied nearly word-for-word from a Tennessee Democratic Party mailer during Black’s 2008 re-election campaign for state senate.
Additionally, Black’s actions were detailed in a December 2007 issue of The Gallatin Newspaper, and were the subject of a WSMV Channel 4 News investigation in January of the same year.
Neither Black nor her family business hauled anyone to court at that time, but, then again, she was cruising to re-election by a 2-1 margin and had poured more than $50,000 of her own money into the race, according to documents filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
Her 2010 contest with Zelenik became a much different race, not only because she was seeking higher office in U.S. Congress, but also because she had a formidable opponent. UPDATE: From Jennifer Baker of the Diane Black campaign via email after this was initially posted. “At the same time the Murfreesboro Post ran this misleading article they also ran on the cover of their publication a photo shopped photo of Lou Ann Zelenik with a gun pointed at Diane Black’s face. They are clearly engaged in a smear campaign against Diane and will go to any length to pursue their liberal agenda. Not only did they fail to contact our campaign for a response, they omitted key facts regarding Zelenik’s false and misleading ads. For example, the company that Lou Ann Zelenik paid to make the ads attacking Diane Black settled out of court and paid a financial settlement. In the settlement papers filed with the court the advertising firm states it has no knowledge of any unethical, illegal or improper behavior. “-Jennifer Baker, Black spokesman
The nasty primary between U.S. Rep. Diane Black and tea party activist Lou Ann Zelenik two years ago is being repeated this summer, and signs are gathering that the race once again will feature the religiously charged and personal attacks that left the two camps bitter and bruised.
A further excerpt from Chas Sisk’s report on the race: With the dust from 2010 barely settled, Black and Zelenik once again will face off in August for the Republican nomination to represent Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District.
With no Democrat on the ballot, the primary will settle who represents Nashville’s northern and eastern suburbs in Congress next year. The battle also could help shape the character of the Tennessee Republican Party for years to come — offering voters a straight-up choice between a firebrand activist and a veteran Republican lawmaker who differ in style more than they differ on policy.
In her first term, Black has been ranked as one of the most conservative members of Congress. She has proposed legislation targeting Planned Parenthood, the Democratic health-care reform law and the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to keep states from cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
“I think people can look at my record and see the things I have accomplished,” she said.
Zelenik is attacking Black as not conservative enough.
“We can’t be wobbly-kneed any longer,” she said. “I represent the people in Tennessee. Not a hierarchy or anything else.”
…One of the key factors in the race will be redistricting. The 6th District was redrawn to exclude Rutherford County, where Zelenik once served as party chairman and drew much of her support. Zelenik responded by moving across the line to Wilson County.
The 2010 race was close, with only 566 votes separating Black from Zelenik and a third candidate, state Sen. Jim Tracy. The race ended with the drug testing firm owned by Black’s husband, David L. Black, suing Zelenik for defamation over a claim made in a TV ad that Black had steered business to his company, Aegis Sciences. A judge dismissed the suit in March.
The redrawn 6th District would appear to be more advantageous for Black. She defeated Zelenik in the parts that remain by 7,000 votes.
But the new district includes more than 30,000 new Republicans. Black has been actively trying to introduce herself to voters in the district, making campaign appearances and, starting Friday, airing radio ads touting her votes on conservative issues.
But Zelenik also has remained politically active. Shortly after her loss in 2010, she cofounded the Tennessee Freedom Coalition, a group that has backed tea party causes. Last week, the group organized the showing of a movie at Cornerstone Church in Madison that took aim at Middle Tennessee’s Muslim community.
Park Overall, an environmental activist and actress, has filed a qualifying petition to seek the Democatic nomination for a run against Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker. The Tennessean also reports on this deadline day for qualifying that a rematch looms in the Republican 6th District Congressional. Lou Ann Zelenik, who lost a close race to Rep. Diane Black two years ago, is trying again. Overall, who spoke at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s Jackson Day dinner on Saturday, was “very well received” there and decided to take on Corker, who is nearing the end of his first Senate term, party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said.
Overall said she was driven to run by “an East Tennessee fire in my belly.”
“It was the Blunt amendment that put me over the top,” she said. “That’s where they were going to decide if they would give me medical care or give me birth control depending on how they morally believed.”
The Blunt amendment was proposed earlier this year to be added to a highway funding bill. In her speech at the Jackson Day dinner, Overall asked, “Why is my womb attached to a transportation bill?”
Overall may be best known for her role on the sitcom Empty Nest. She also appeared in the 1990 movie Kindergarten Cop.
…Zelenik picked up a qualifying petition in Wilson County to run for election in the newly redrawn 6th District, and said she plans to qualify by today’s noon deadline.
Zelenik lost the 2010 GOP primary for the seat by fewer than 300 votes to Black, who went on to win the general election and is now serving her first term in Washington.
The fallout from that battle was heavy as Zelenik and Black traded barbed accusations and lawsuits. Zelenik ran an ad describing Black as having approved contracts for Aegis Sciences Corp., a drug testing company owned by her husband. A Nashville judge dismissed a suit filed by Aegis, saying the ad was protected political speech, while Zelenik countersued the company.
“We had to wait until the lawsuit was behind us” to take this step in qualifying, she told The Daily News Journal in an interview Wednesday night. “We are extremely pleased with the ruling.”
Just days before the primary, Black released ads saying Zelenik built her construction company on government contracts and “even got certified to get preferential treatment under affirmative action.”
The forensic sciences company owned by U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s husband reached a settlement Tuesday with the firm that created an ad at the center of a defamation lawsuit during the 2010 race for Congress, according to the Tennessean. Aegis Sciences Corp., which is owned by Dr. David Black, settled the lawsuit against Bright Media Inc., which it contends falsely asserted that Diane Black as a Tennessee senator helped the company obtain contracts from the state. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
Aegis Sciences sued former Rutherford County GOP Chairwoman Lou Ann Zelenik and related parties in July 2010 over the commercial.
The lawsuit contended Zelenik’s campaign, campaign manager Jay Heine and Bright Media defamed the company and violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act dealing with campaign ads.
An initial ruling favored Zelenik, saying her commercial was protected political speech. Aegis and Black refused to dismiss the lawsuit and Zelenik filed a counterclaim against them both.
Black, a Gallatin Republican, narrowly defeated Zelenik in the GOP primary and went on to win the general election against Democrat Brett Carter. Following the election, a mediator failed to resolve the matter, and Zelenik then called for dismissal.
Under the settlement announced Tuesday, Bright Media agreed that its ads didn’t intend to accuse Aegis of illegal, unethical or improper behavior and that it had no knowledge of any improper action between Aegis and the state regarding contracts, according to a statement released by Seigenthaler Public Relations.
“We are happy to have amicably settled this matter with Bright Media and to have the opportunity to set the public record straight,” David Black, president and CEO of Aegis Sciences, stated.