Evan McMullin sues Club for Growth, Utah TV stations over attack ad

Independent U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin talks to members of the media about special interest groups running misleading ad campaigns against him at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center in Salt Lake City on Sept. 29. McMullin sued Club for Growth Action and local TV stations on Tuesday over a misleading attack ad, arguing the "doctored" video makes it sound like he called all Republicans racists and bigots.

Independent U.S. Senate candidate Evan McMullin talks to members of the media about special interest groups running misleading ad campaigns against him at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center in Salt Lake City on Sept. 29. McMullin sued Club for Growth Action and local TV stations on Tuesday over a misleading attack ad, arguing the "doctored" video makes it sound like he called all Republicans racists and bigots. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin sued Club for Growth Action and local TV stations on Tuesday over a misleading attack ad, arguing the "doctored" video makes it sound like he called all Republicans racists and bigots.

The lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City contends that the conservative super PAC distorts old footage and audio to make it sound like McMullin accused all Republicans of being racists and bigots.

"Mr. McMullin never said this. On the contrary, his public work has been centered on earning the trust of Republicans and conservatives in this state and throughout the country. Mr. McMullin does not hold to the sentiment wrongfully put in his mouth by defendants and did not ever express that view," according to the lawsuit.

In addition to asking a judge to block the Club for Growth and the TV stations from using the ad, the lawsuit seeks an unspecified dollar amount in damages.

McMullin and GOP incumbent Sen. Mike Lee are engaged in a nasty race for U.S. Senate. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows the two candidates running neck and neck.

The doctored video is intended to deceive Utah voters so they won't hold Lee accountable for his "failed" time in the Senate, McMullin said. He said his campaign took the issue to court because it has exhausted its ability to convince the TV stations to take down the ad that he called false.

Club for Growth, he said, has a history of doctoring political ads.

"It is just absolutely imperative that we defend Utahns' access to truth, and if we don't do it now, I think this will only get worse," McMullin said.

McMullin quickly produced an ad to "set the record straight" in which he says Lee's "special interest friends are lying about me because I won't take their money."

"It's costly, but it must be done," McMullin said about the counter advertisement.

'Bright red line'

In addition to Club for Growth Action, the lawsuit names KUTV, KTVX and Fox 13 and their parent companies as defendants. KSL is not named in the suit.

The Washington-based super PAC has spent millions of dollars supporting conservative candidates, often in the form of attack ads, across the country, including nearly $2.2 million against McMullin, according to OpenSecrets.com.

McMullin campaign manager Andrew Roberts said the ad crosses a "bright red line."

"Club for Growth has a history of doing exactly this and we will not stand for it in this race. Utah television stations have a responsibility not to knowingly disseminate deceptive ads to Utahns especially in the context of a political campaign," he said in a statement.

"Utah stations need to make a decision: Do they want to inform Utahns, or do they want to be complicit in misleading them? That is what's on the line in this race. We're taking legal action not only against Club for Growth, but against the television stations who propagate these lies."

'Tricky' questions

The McMullin campaign sent legal complaints to the TV stations last week calling the ad "deceptive and defamatory" and asked them to remove it. KSL pulled the spot but started running a modified version provided by Club for Growth over the weekend. The McMullin campaign said the spot still isn't entirely accurate but is less subject to legal action.

The Club for Growth did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the PAC emailed a statement to the Deseret News from Club for Growth President David McIntosh.

"Evan McMullin will do anything to hide his past statements about Republicans. The fact is he still hasn't paid his lawyers from his last vanity campaign, so unless his team is working pro-bono, we should expect this stunt to fall apart," he said.

McMullin owes about $664,000, including more than $500,000 in legal fees, from his failed 2016 presidential campaign, according to FEC records. It's not unusual for losing presidential campaigns to end in debt. McMullin said last week he is committed to paying it down.

Only KTVX provided a comment among the TV stations.

Mark Danielson, KTVX vice president and general manager, said in an email that he received the lawsuit Tuesday and the station is reviewing it.

While broadcasters have protections from liability for the content of candidate ads, the same is not necessarily true for noncandidate issue ads. Those kinds of ads can raise "tricky" questions regarding liability for false, misleading or hostile statements for broadcasters that air them, according to Telecommunications Law Professionals.

The 30-second ad features three women looking at a video clip on a laptop in which McMullin says, "The Republican base is racist ... these bigots." The women cringe and then comment about the remark, including one who says what McMullin said is "derogatory to a huge group of people" and another who calls him a "charlatan."

The clip comes from an Aug. 12, 2017, appearance McMullin made on CNN with five other guests talking about Republicans' response to deadly violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. An attack on peaceful counterprotesters left one person dead.

On CNN, McMullin said most Republicans tend not to speak out against racism because they're attacked by some within the party for doing so.

"Not all Republicans, of course, are racist. ... But there is an element of the Republican base that is racist," McMullin said in the segment.

"And we need leaders, especially on the Republican and the conservative side these days, who serve the country, and serving the country means standing up to these bigots. This country was built on equality and liberty and we need all of our leaders to stand ...."

McMullin used the word "bigots" in reference to the white supremacists and other racist groups.

The public interest

Lynda Cox, president of the Professional Republican Women of Utah, the woman who called McMullin a "charlatan" in the ad, told the Deseret News last week that she stands by her comments in the commercial.

A CNN fact check of the ad determined Club for Growth "dishonestly" edited McMullin's 2017 remarks.

"The ad slices and dices McMullin's comments to try to make him unpalatable to Republican voters," according to CNN.

The lawsuit contends that the ad threatens the ability of the voters to make an informed decision in the election.

"While all who practice in politics understand it is not a gentle profession, factual distortions that threaten the interest of the public in fair elections, and that wrongfully slander hard-won reputations, cross the line," the suit says.

McMullin said he recognizes that even if a judge compels the ads to be dropped from the airwaves, it would be difficult to remove them from the internet.

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Dennis Romboy
Dennis Romboy is an editor and reporter for the Deseret News. He has covered a variety of beats over the years, including state and local government, social issues and courts. A Utah native, Romboy earned a degree in journalism from the University of Utah. He enjoys cycling, snowboarding and running.

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