Lobbyist Vicki Iseman files $27M suit against New York Times

Claim targets February piece about her relationship with McCain

By Paul Fletcher and Alan Cooper
December 30, 2008

Lawyers for Washington lobbyist Vicki L. Iseman have filed a $27 million defamation lawsuit against The New York Times for a February article about Iseman and her relationship with Sen. John McCain.

The suit, filed Dec. 30 in U.S. District Court in Richmond, also names as defendants the executive editor of the Times, its Washington bureau chief and four reporters who wrote the story. The suit alleges the article falsely communicated that Iseman and McCain had an illicit “romantic” relationship in 1999 when he was chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and she was a lobbyist representing clients before Congress.

Richmond lawyer W. Coleman Allen Jr. and Rodney A. Smolla, dean of the Washington & Lee law school and a First Amendment scholar, represent Iseman.

The 36-page complaint parses the nuances of the story, which Allen said in an interview is “very cleverly constructed.” The piece “could be interpreted as implying an unprofessional relationship” between Iseman and McCain, he said.

Both Iseman and McCain denied any improper relationship, a fact that was duly reported in the Times piece.

But political observers and the public did in fact perceive the story as being about an affair, Smolla said. That fact provides a significant basis for the defamation claim, Smolla noted. The complaint cites the post-story remarks of 10 different commentators across the political spectrum; in each case, their comments about the story assume it is about an alleged affair, the lawyers note.

The Times’ own public editor, Clark Hoyt, published what Allen called a “blistering attack” on the decision to publish three days after the article appeared.

The suit claims that Iseman suffered damage to her mental, emotional and physical health. The lawyers noted that she continues to work as a lobbyist in Washington, for a firm based in Arlington. They said they anticipated developing their case on damages as the matter moves forward.

The piece was published at the height of the primary season last winter, and, the suit states, the defendants knew that it would “reverberate around the world.”

The suit continues, “In their attack on Senator McCain, the [defendants] were willing to sacrifice Ms. Iseman as acceptable collateral damage, recklessly indifferent to the avalanche of scorn, derision and ridicule Ms. Iseman would suffer.”

Smolla noted that in one defamation decision before the U.S. Supreme Court, then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist observed that the purpose of defamation law is to provide an aggrieved party with a remedy.

But it also has the purpose of correcting the public record and of giving the public a remedy to “an offense to the public discourse,” he said.

Allen noted that after the Times article was published in February, Iseman had anticipated filing a lawsuit that would be “the source of her vindication.”

She specifically waited until the national election was over, he said, adding that she did not want any suit she filed to influence the result.

Efforts to obtain comment from Bill Keller, the Times executive editor named as a defendant, were not immediately successful.

Update: The New York Times issued a statement following the filing of the suit: “We fully stand behind the article. We continue to believe it to be true and accurate, and that we will prevail. As we said at the time, it was an important piece that raised questions about a presidential contender and the perception that he had been engaged in conflicts of interest.”

Click here to read the full text of the complaint in Iseman v. The New York Times Co. Inc.

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