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Issa challenges Applegate's attack ads

Issa challenges Applegate's attack ads
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, is considering suing his his opponent, Doug Applegate, over an attack ad. (Screenshot from Doug Applegate's commercial)

Facing his toughest re-election challenge ever, Rep. Darrell Issa is contesting a TV ad that accuses him of personally benefiting from his actions in Washington, claiming it is deceptive and threatening to sue his opponent.

A letter from the Vista Republican's  lawyer says that Democratic challenger Doug Applegate defamed the incumbent congressman in a television commercial and demands that Applegate pull the ad from airwaves and publicly apologize. Issa's attorney also sent Applegate's campaign a draft copy of a libel complaint it says it is poised to file.

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The ad claims Issa personally benefited from some of his actions in Congress.

Applegate's and the campaign's actions are "not only deceptive and wrongfully damaging to Congressman Issa's reputation, but also threaten to compromise the integrity of the election," the Sept. 29 letter from Randy Evans, a prominent Republican attorney, says.

On Tuesday, Issa's campaign also took issue with a new Applegate commercial the incumbent says misrepresents his stance on funding for emergency workers who provided help after the 9/11 terrorists attacks.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. (AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga)

Applegate, a retired Marine colonel-turned trial lawyer, said in a statement that he's not backing down from his first commercial.

"I'm a Marine Colonel who volunteered to go to Iraq in 2006 and spent a good chunk of my tour in Ramadi. Congressman Issa's money and lawyers don't scare me one bit. It's incredible that someone whose career consists of conducting costly, partisan investigations is so thin-skinned," he said.

On Monday Applegate's lawyer, Andrew Werbrock, replied to Evans and said the matter "can only be seen as a misguided attempt by Mr. Issa to bully and intimidate my clients into silence, because Mr. Issa does not like the content of the advertisement."

The dispute over the ad involves a 2011 front page New York Times article headlined "Helping His District, and Himself". Issa has long contested the accuracy of the article, and after its publication issued a press release asking for 13 corrections in the report. The newspaper corrected three errors — including one caused by inaccurate information in Issa's foundation's IRS records and another from bad information from the county assessor — but the article's central premise that Issa personally benefited from his official actions in Congress remained.

The article Issa disputes says, in part, that the congressman "has secured millions of dollars in Congressional earmarks for road work and public works projects that promise improved traffic and other benefits to the many commercial properties he owns here north of San Diego. In one case, more than $800,000 in earmarks he arranged will help widen a busy thoroughfare in front of a medical plaza he bought for $16.6 million."

Issa sold the property in January 2012 at a $1.6 million loss and the earmarked funds were not spent on the road project.

Evans, Issa's attorney, took issue with an ad that Applegate aired last month on network and cable television in Orange and San Diego counties. The ad ties the 16-year-incumbent to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and brought up claims from the 2011 article.

Evans' letter says Applegate's ad "takes serious liberties" with the article and makes it appear that a line from the commercial's narrator came from the newspaper's report when, in fact, it does not.

"You have to be accountable whether you are the New York Times or a regular citizen. If you are going to say something untrue, you have to take the consequences on that, including damages," Evans said in an interview.

If Issa successfully sues and receives damages, the draft complaint says the money would be donated to a charity that helps injured service members.

In the commercial, a newspaper-like graphic appears while a narrator says "Issa gamed the system to line his own pockets, steering millions in taxpayer money to properties he owns."

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Evans said that this line appears in the commercial as a quote from the newspaper, when, in fact, it does not actually appear in the article's text.

"By approving and sponsoring the Advertisement, the Applegate Defendants have sanctioned a lie," the draft complaint says.

Werbrock, however, said it's clear that it's not a direct quote from the article, but rather accurately reflects "the article's claim that, as a member of Congress, Issa took official actions that inured to his personal pecuniary benefit."

There are discrepancies between the draft libel complaint and letter compared to the content of the ad itself. The commercial is misquoted in the draft complaint in the letter, and a copy of the New York Times article does not appear in Applegate's ad as claimed, but rather a graphic of a generic newspaper. The differences between his letter and draft complaint don't matter, Evans said.

Evans said his client is considering legal remedies ranging from an injunction to stop the ad from appearing to a lawsuit seeking damages from Applegate and his campaign manager. But Werbrock said if Issa does bring the matter to court, Applegate and his campaign will take their own legal course of action.

Twitter: @jptstewart

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