The last time Central Illinois’ 18th Congressional District was represented by someone other than a Republican was in 1939 when James Meeks finished his third term. So it’s not crazy for the GOP to be confident, even arrogant, about the power of the “safe seat.”
However, arrogance can have a price. In 2015, Republican Congressman Aaron Schock resigned after a little more than three terms; he was indicted in 2016; and last year President Trump’s Justice Department prosecutors dropped charges against him after he paid back $68,000 to congressional campaign funds he’d used for personal expenses and also paid federal taxes he owed.
Now Schock, fellow Republican and incumbent U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood – running for his third full term in November’s election – and the Peoria County Republican Central Committee all are wrapped up in a resolution of a libel suit that was announced as settled Sept. 16, according to court documents.
The Peoria County GOP is expected to issue a retraction of statements signed by LaHood and Schock and sent to hundreds of area residents shortly before the 2014 election.
Coming some six years afterward, the retraction seems like a deadbeat dad apologizing for a woman’s unplanned pregnancy as their child heads to first grade.
Libel is a false statement published about someone and harming that person or his or her reputation by tending to bring them into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt by others. The statement must identify the person and be presented as fact and not clearly identified as opinion. A key defense is provable truth.
Filed in October 2015, the lawsuit alleged that a letter signed by Darin LaHood (then a State Senator) and Schock defamed Dick Burns’ reputation and business by accusing Burns of wrongdoing. The week before the 2014 election, the letter was sent to households in the mostly rural Peoria County Board District 16 where Burns, an Edwards Democrat, was running against incumbent Brad Harding, a Trivoli Republican.
Their letter said, “Dick Burns has been banned by the Illinois State Fair from showing hogs because he has been caught seriously cheating to win contests with large prizes.”
Days later, Harding beat Burns 56% to 44% and kept the position until he was unseated by a Republican challenger four years later.
The letter made “factual allegations which are false in their entirety,” the lawsuit stated. They “cannot be characterized as opinions, hyperbole, or loose or figurative language, cannot reasonably be subjected to an innocent construction [and] they imply not only the potential of criminal conduct but also impropriety in Mr. Burns’ professional integrity in agriculture as well as in his professional reputation as a judge for cattle shows.”
Nationally, a few cases seem to have ruled that political candidates can lie, but courts have been inconsistent about applying First Amendment protection to falsehoods. Such decisions usually apply to issues and ideas, too, not private or professional lives, and distinguish between political speech and defamatory statements, which aren’t protected speech.
Even as a public figure – who under U.S. Supreme Court precedent must prove actual malice or reckless disregard to win a libel suit – Burns apparently felt his claim had merit. The suit says LaHood, Schock and the Peoria GOP acted “either with malice knowing they [the statements] were false, or in reckless disregard of whether they were false or not.”
As to delays, the Republican defendants were sometimes hard to find, slow to respond, asked for extensions or took other actions that bogged down the process. Most recently, Schock in August fired his lawyer and sought a postponement of 21 days to retain new counsel, which Judge Michael Risinger denied.
Burns’ lawyer, Christopher Ryan, in one 2017 document in the case file wrote, “It took a Motion to Compel to get every single thing in this case that has happened, to happen.”
At press time, final terms haven’t been disclosed. The parties are still negotiating the language of the retraction letter, which is expected to be mailed to the recipients who got the original letter, and a cash settlement may be part of the resolution.
When Judge Risinger vacated a bench trial scheduled for Sept. 21, he ordered a settlement filing by the middle of this month.
Will truth and some justice happen? In an era awash in political consultants, well-funded campaigns and endless mailings, robocalls and advertisements – much less social media – an old saying comes to mind.
Author Jonathan Swift in 1710 wrote, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late … The tale has had its effect.”