By Nicole Lafond | August 8, 2019 3:56 p.m.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) has moved on from suing fake Twitter accounts and is now going after the real menaces to society: farmers and librarians.
In the latest chapter of a seemingly endless string of lawsuits aimed at people and entities that have slightly inconvenienced his reelection prospects, the California Republican is suing four of his own constituents, alleging they conspired with “dark money” groups to damage his reputation.
The defendants include: A farmer named Paul Buxman, who told local media he’s “praying” for the congressman; a Fresno Pacific University librarian named Hope Nisly; a political activist and member of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, Michael Seeley; and Daniel O’Connell, the head of a Central Valley nonprofit.
At its core, the lawsuit alleges that Buxman, Nisly, Seeley and O’Connell conspired with “dark money” groups to discredit Nunes’ legitimacy as a farmer and harm his campaign. The saga stretches back to the 2018 election.
With the legal aid of Fight Back California, the defendants filed a petition ahead of Election Day asking the California secretary of state to reject Nunes’ ballot designation as a “U.S. Representative/Farmer for the 22nd District.” According to Fight Back California’s senior strategist Katie Merrill, the foursome aimed to prevent Nunes from declaring himself a farmer in his home district.
As Esquire revealed in September 2018, the Nunes family’s dairy farm is not actually in California. It’s in Iowa. The California secretary of state eventually ruled that Nunes could keep the farmer designation on the ballot because he’s a partner in two different farming operations.
Regardless, Nunes’ campaign argues in the lawsuit that the petition was a “sham” and alleges the defendants used the court system improperly, calling the effort an “abusive publicity stunt” designed with the “sole, improper purpose of harassing” the Nunes campaign, “interfering with its business and needlessly and vexatiously increasing cost and expense.”
Notably, rather than seeking hundreds of millions of dollars like his previous two suits, Nunes only asks for compensation that the jury deems reasonable.
The lawsuit also names a number of groups that the campaign cites as part of the conspiracy, though not as defendants: Fresno Bee publisher McClatchy, Fight Back California, American Democracy Legal Fund, the Janz campaign, Campaign for Accountability, Fight Back and Swamp Accountability Project, which is run by familiar Nunes nemesis Liz Mair. (Mair, who is being sued by Nunes for a total of $400 million, declined to comment to TPM about the new lawsuit and said she hasn’t “read it” and is “not spending time on it.”)
The defendants in the latest suit are the types of voters a sitting lawmaker typically would be working to attract, not target, a Democratic opponent of Nunes’ told TPM Thursday.
Phil Arballo announced this week that he intends to help fundraise for the constituents’ legal defense against the lawsuit, which he says boils down to a matter of “ego” for the eight-term Republican. “Maybe this is his way of saying, ‘How dare you come after me and my seat?’” Arballo added
The latest lawsuit is a doozy, chock full of allegations that essentially boil down to Nunes misunderstanding “how campaigns work,” according to Heather Greven, the former campaign manager for Andrew Janz, the Democrat who out-raised and nearly beat Nunes in 2018. Notably, Janz is not personally named in the lawsuit. Greven theorizes that’s because Janz is an attorney and Nunes may want to avoid the appearance of going after his political opponents.
“He tends to not pick on people his own size,” Greven told TPM.
The groups Nunes labels as “dark money” operations are unamused by the lawmaker’s latest publicity efforts.
“This is more frivolity from one of the most corrupt people in Washington. Clearly the congressman has too much time on his hands,” American Democracy Legal Fund President Brad Woodhouse told TPM.
Merrill, the Fight Back California strategist, told TPM that Nunes’ allegations of dark money won’t stand up in court because her super PAC was transparent about its efforts to flip Republican seats in California blue in 2018.
“So it is no surprise now that he is attempting to bully these three constituents, who are a farmer, a librarian and a nonprofit employee, by suing them,” she continued.
Lawyer for Nunes’ campaign didn’t return TPM’s requests for comment.
When reached by email earlier this week, Nisly, one of the defendants, told TPM that the group would not be speaking to the media until they’d had a chance to meet with a lawyer. However Buxman, the 71-year-old Sweet Home Ranch farmer named as a defendant, told the Fresno Bee this week that he understood Nunes’ pain of “being maligned.”
“I’ve never seen a Twitter, or e-face, face deal – whatever that is,” he told the Fresno Bee. “I’m not a conspirator. I’ve never read anything Devin has written. Only since seeing the internet, I see why people are tired of it, with the bad comments. You’re better off without it.”