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Iowa federal judge tosses Devin Nunes defamation case against reporter

The suit stemmed from a political reporter's investigation into claims the former congressman's family used undocumented workers on their Iowa dairy farm.

(CN) — A federal judge in Iowa threw out former California GOP Congressman Devin Nunes' defamation suit against political reporter Ryan Lizza on Tuesday, the latest of multiple setbacks the four-year-old case has suffered.

Nunes has pursued a legal vendetta against Lizza, currently Politico's chief Washington correspondent, and his former employer Hearst Magazines since September 2019. The case stems from a September 2018 article Lizza wrote for Esquire Magazine in which he detailed his investigation into the Nunes' family dairy farm in Iowa, and the broader dairy industry's dependency on undocumented labor.

The Republican was serving both as representative for California's 22nd congressional district and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee at the time the article was published, and he used both positions to support then-President Donald Trump. Under his direction, the House Intelligence Committee contributed to the Trump administration's long-running feud with the FBI, and a 2017 analysis by FiveThirtyEight found he voted in line with Trump's political positions 96% of the time.

Into this context stepped Lizza, who in 2018 visited Sibley, Iowa, home of the Nunes family dairy company NuStar Farms LLC. Nunes has made his family connection to dairy farming a major part of his public persona, but Lizza wanted to find out why the then-congressman never publicly disclosed that his immediate family had sold their dairy farm in California to buy another one in Iowa in the mid-aughts.

In his Esquire piece the reporter said he found evidence that Nunes' family made extensive use of undocumented laborers on NuStar Farms, a secret the family didn't want to get out. While in Sibley, he also claimed to have been followed and threatened by Nunes' father, mother, brother and sister-in-law, who he said were panicked at the idea of his article instigating a raid on their farm by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

All this, Lizza said, constituted massive hypocrisy on Nunes' part. He argued that Nunes' support of Trump tacitly extended to the administration's hostility toward undocumented immigrants, even as Nunes' family benefitted financially from immigrant labor. He extended the criticism to Trump-supporting dairy farmers as a whole, writing it was an open secret that nearly all dairy farms in northern Iowa knowingly employed undocumented workers in order to avoid paying employee benefits and commensurate U.S. wages.

"There is massive political hypocrisy at the center of this," Lizza wrote in the Esquire piece. "Trump’s and [former GOP Iowa Congressman Steve] King’s rural-farm supporters embrace anti-immigrant politicians while employing undocumented immigrants."

Nunes filed suit against Lizza and Hearst Magazines a year to the day after the Esquire article ran. In the 25-page initial complaint, he described Lizza as a "left-wing political journalist" with an "extreme bias" against him, and also detailed Lizza's history of alleged sexual misconduct. The suit argued that Lizza's article was a hit piece that unduly damaged Nunes' reputation in Congress, and in turn asked the court to punish both Lizza and Hearst to the tune of $77 million.

"Defendants’ misconduct exemplifies the very worst of modern 'journalism,'" the complaint states. "They should be punished for their unlawful actions and a very strong message needs to be sent to prevent other so-called 'journalists' from acting in a similar way."

The court disagreed. U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams, a Donald Trump appointee, dismissed the suit in August 2020, finding that nothing in the 2018 article harmed Nunes directly and that Nunes never actually denied Lizza's implication that NuStar used undocumented labor. A successful appeal to the Eighth Circuit revived the case in September 2021 with NuStar joining in as a plaintiff.

But on Tuesday Williams once again found Nunes' suit lacking. In his 101-page opinion, the judge reiterated that Nunes did not show he suffered any material harm as a result of the article.

"Nunes makes no accounting and provides no formula on which to base his damages. He does not show being confronted by various persons at work negatively impacted his occupation or ability to work, or that changes in campaign fundraising damaged his campaign and thus his occupation," the judge wrote.

Williams also ruled that no reasonable jury could find for Nunes on most elements of his claims. He admitted there were enough factual unknowns that Nunes and NuStar may have been able to convince a jury that Lizza's implications were false, but also pointed out Nunes had never offered factual evidence disputing the allegations.

"There are disputes on essential facts, including whether Nunes was aware of his family’s alleged hiring practices. There is, however, no evidence to which Nunes cites that rebuts the allegation that his family farm employs undocumented persons," Williams wrote.

It is unclear where, if anywhere, the suit goes from here. Nunes' attorney William McGinn, of the Iowa law firm McGinn Springer & Noethe PLC, did not return a request for comment.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Media, Politics, Regional

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