Robert Hurt is suing the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club over an ad claiming he voting in favor of uranium mining interests despite a conflict of interest, the Daily Progress reported.
According to the article:
Hurt’s lawsuit, filed in Greene County Circuit Court, asserts he was defamed by TV ads that call his vote in the General Assembly in favor of a uranium mining study a “shocking conflict of interest.”
The ads, produced and paid for by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, say Hurt’s father “has a financial interest in uranium mining” and has received campaign contributions from the uranium mining industry.
Hurt’s lawsuit notes that the Committee on Rules of the Senate of Virginia determined that Hurt “does not have a personal interest in the consideration of Senate Bill 525 and that his obligation to vote on matters before the Senate should be honored.”
Here is the ad:
(more on the flip)
Now, maybe Hurt truly feels aggrieved by this ad. Since the suit was filed quietly two weeks ago in Greene County, however, perhaps there was some other strategic purpose behind it. Waldo speculates that he may have been trying to get it off the air.
I don’t know, but I do agree with Waldo on this:
The third and most surprising aspect is that he’s filing this lawsuit at all. I’m no expert in first amendment cases, but I’m no slouch, either. Hurt is a public official, meaning that to win a slander case, he’s got to prove actual malice-that is, that all four of the defendants made specific that they knew or strongly suspected were not true. That’s a very, very high bar, one that’s pretty difficult to clear.
Truth is an absolute defense to defamation, so if the allegations in the ad are true, the suit would fail. I’m not sure why a politician would subject himself to a court case, the main issue in which will be whether there was a reasonable basis to believe he had a conflict of interest when casting a vote, unless he thought he was bulletproof.
But yesterday, Politifact rated the ad “barely true,” which is another way of saying it is “true,” so I’m not sure what Hurt was thinking here, unless he is getting ready to sue the RTD as well.
In any event, according to Politifact, “The TV ad overstates Hurt’s personal ties to the uranium industry, and three direct-mail ads take the issue over the top,” but their complaint is with the level of rhetoric used, not the substance. For example, Politifact goes on to say, “One, showing a young girl on a swing and bearing the headline, ‘There’s a hidden danger lurking underground …,’ resembles an infamous Lyndon Johnson ad in the 1964 presidential race that featured a girl picking flower petals moments before a nuclear explosion.”
Yikes! A political ad with strong messaging! Will the Republic survive?
On the substance, however, here is what Politifact had to say:
Hurt’s father, Henry C. Hurt Jr., is an investor in the company, Virginia Uranium Inc. It was formed in 2007 by Walter Coles Sr., whose farm, Coles Hill, contains a major deposit of uranium discovered in the late 1970s. … Hurt’s alleged conflict occurred more than a year earlier in a vote in the Virginia Senate on a bill to authorize the study. That bill eventually died in the House of Delegates but Virginia Uranium is paying $1.4 million for the National Academy of Sciences Study, which will examine the potential socioeconomic impact of allowing uranium mining in Virginia.
It is indisputable that Hurt’s father — a writer, local bookseller and former Reader’s Digest editor — invested in Virginia Uranium in 2007. The connection was documented in articles published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and The Washington Post that were cited in the ads.
Hurt’s defense is that the General Assembly ruled it was not a conflict for him. That is true, but the General Assembly’s determination, according to Politifact, was based on the following:
The panel ruled that under Virginia’s ethics laws, Hurt’s father is not part of the senator’s “immediate family” and their financial interests were not entwined. It also said Hurt could vote “because the impact of a proposed study on his father’s financial interests are speculative and because the study may have a broad impact on persons interested in uranium mining.”
Fair enough, but that’s the General Assembly’s rules. Isn’t it an open question, however, whether that relationship creates a sufficient conflict for a voter to be concerned?
Politifact goes on to say, “Technically, the ads are correct about Hurt’s contributions from uranium interests, but by the barest of margins.” That is like saying someone it is a little bit pregnant. Let me translate: The ads are true, according to Politifact.
As fort he contributions Hurt took from uranium mining interests, Politifact states:
Walter Coles Jr., a vice president of Virginia Uranium and son of its CEO, gave three checks totaling $1,500 over a period of seven years to then-Del. Hurt, who ran for the state Senate in 2007. Norman W. Reynolds, who was the first CEO of Virginia Uranium, gave Hurt’s campaign $500 in 2007. Together, that’s $2,000, just qualifying for the “thousands,” in contributions claimed in the TV ad.
The conservation groups also based the claim on $7,054 in contributions made to Hurt over five years by his father, who presumably had plenty of reasons other than uranium mining for supporting his son. All of the father’s donations were made before 2006, when Henry Hurt said he began exploring investing in mining for uranium.
Further, most of the contributions weren’t cash at all. About $5,300 came in donations of office space, a political luncheon, and food for a police dinner.
Politifact should know better than that. A contribution-in-kind is still a contribution of value. The fact that it was food rather than money to pay for food — well, I’m not sure I see the difference.
Politifact’s conclusion sums it all up:
So let’s review the key facts in the claim that Hurt put his own interests ahead of the public by voting on the Senate uranium study bill.
Hurt did vote for the bill, and he accepted $2,000 cash contributions from uranium industry executives, barely justifying the Sierra Club’s claim.
His father also contributed to his campaigns, but those donations came before the elder Hurt invested in uranium. There is no question his father stands to gain if uranium mining is allowed in Virginia, but Hurt disclosed that and was cleared by the Senate ethics panel to vote on the issue.
Therefore, we find the claim to be Barely True.