POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Evan McMullin sues super PAC, three Utah news stations for defamatory ad

Oct 4, 2022, 6:25 PM | Updated: Oct 14, 2022, 11:45 am

Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin is taking a political action committee and three television sta...

Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin is taking a political action committee and three television stations to court over a defamatory ad. Photo credit: Weston Kenney, The Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Senate candidate Evan McMullin is suing a political action committee for creating a “doctored” ad and three local news stations for airing it after his campaign asked them to stop.

The lawsuit also names Fox 13, ABC 4, and KUTV 2 as defendants for airing the campaign ad.

On Tuesday, McMullin announced his campaign was suing Club for Growth, a Washington-based super PAC, for producing a campaign ad that McMullan says creates a “false quotation” from him that originated from a 2017 panel on a CNN broadcast. The group backs incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee. A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll said the race is neck and neck.

Court documents list KSL as a news source that aired the ad, but after being contacted by the McMullin Campaign, KSL voluntarily stopped airing it.

“We suspended the ad after receiving a legal complaint about the factual nature of its content. Club for Growth, the organization which provided the ad, provided an updated ad which we are currently running,” said Tanya Vea, executive vice president of Bonneville International and general manager of KSL TV.

The “doctored” ad

According to court documents, Club for Growth launched the advertisement on Sept. 29, showing three women discussing their impressions of McMullin’s quotes from that broadcast.

“The ad uses video of Mr. McMullin’s face and doctored audio of his voice, in which he is portrayed as making the statement, ‘The Republican base is racist. These bigots!’” reads court documents.

One of the three women in the ad comments on the quote, saying, “‘what Evan McMullin says – that doesn’t feel kind. He’s derogatory toward a huge group of people.’”

McMullin’s lawyers state that the audio was doctored to give a false impression of McMullin to viewers, implying he “condemned the Republican Party and its broad base as racists, and misleadingly invites viewers to draw the same conclusions about Mr. McMullin.”

“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,” the lawsuit states.

According to court documents, the false quotation was pulled from an Aug. 2017 CNN broadcast where McMullan participated in a panel commenting on the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed while counter-protesting a white nationalist rally.

During the panel, McMullin spoke about some members of the Republican Party attacking Republican leaders for anti-racist statements.

The court documents provided the full statement that McMullin used in the CNN broadcast.

“Not all Republicans of course are racist. I was raised by Republicans, who are not at all, and we welcome Americans of all backgrounds and are not at all like this … but there is an element of the Republican base that is racist. And our leaders are afraid to stand up to them because, if they do so, they’ll be criticized, and they’ll potentially lose votes.”

McMullin later went on to say that ‘we need leaders, especially on the Republican and conservative side these days who will serve the country. And serving the country means standing up to these bigots,’ according to court documents.

McMullin’s lawyers accuse Club for Growth of deliberately doctoring the CNN footage and audio to make it seem that McMullin believes the Republican Party base is “generally racist and bigoted.”

The broadcast defendants

Court documents state that the McMullin campaign communicated with a representative from each local TV news organization “explaining the falsity of the ad and the deceptive impact it was likely to have on the Utah electorate.” But only KSL TV voluntarily removed the ad.

“The refusal of the Broadcaster Defendants to remove the ad, though on notice of its falsity and after the expiration of the retraction period provided under Utah law, is evidence of their malice in continuing to broadcast the ad,” states court documents.

McMullin’s lawyers accuse Fox 13 of acting with the knowledge of the ad’s false quote.

“In its news segment, Fox 13’s host acknowledges that Fox 13 has received numerous comments on the ad, telling his audience that ‘many of you have called us and emailed us about the ad,’ reads court documents. “Despite its news story acknowledging the distortion of Mr. McMullin’s words, Fox 13 has continued to run the ad numerous times, without including the explanatory context featured in its ephemeral news piece.”

KSL5 is listed in the documents as carrying the ad but removing it.

The updated ad includes a different quote from the 2017 CNN broadcast where McMullin says, “Wait a minute, excuse me. I am going to finish. An element of the Republican Party is racist.”

Requested relief

The lawsuit claims that Club for Growth Action purposely timed the ad to cause “maximum damage to Mr. McMullin’s reputation among Utah’s Republicans and conservatives,” and Fox 13, ABC 4, and KUTV understood the damages it would cause if aired.

Because of the claims, McMullin’s lawyers ask for a trial by jury. If a jury rules in favor of the McMullin campaign, they ask to be awarded compensatory damages that would be determined during the trial.

McMullin v Club for Growth Action (Complaint 2022) by Michael Houck on Scribd

Responses from parties

McMullin announced the lawsuit in a tweet calling Club for Growth a “shady special interest group backing Mike Lee.” He also urged Fox 13, KUTV, and ABC 4 to take down the ad and “do right by Utahns.”

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.

The Club for Growth did not respond to a request for comment, according to the Deseret News.

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. McMullin said last week he is committed to paying it down.

Among the stations named in the lawsuit, only ABC 4 provided a comment to Deseret News on Tuesday.

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

CNN fact-check of the Club for Growth ad agrees that McMullan’s claims are “correct.” They also refer to a previous time the super PAC made a “deceptive” ad against a candidate running in a Republican Senate primary in North Carolina in 2021.

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Evan McMullin sues super PAC, three Utah news stations for defamatory ad