Judge Throws Out Nunes Aide’s Defamation Suit

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close ally of President Donald Trump, arrives at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

BALTIMORE (CN) — A judge added to a pile of failed defamation suits from California Congressman Devin Nunes Wednesday after dismissing a dispute that aimed to link his aide to statements made by Ukrainian Businessman Lev Parnas and published on CNN.

“[Nunes aide Derek] Harvey’s arguments that it was defamatory for CNN to state or otherwise imply that he was assisting Nunes in investigation of a political rival are simply without merit.,” wrote U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett of the District of Maryland. “Nevertheless, this Court details below how these statements fail to state a claim for defamation for numerous additional reasons.”

Trump impeachment witness Lev Parnas will now join Esquire Magazine and Twitter in their legal wins against the ally of former President Donald Trump who has often used courts outside of his Fresno district to attack those who speak ill of him. CNN was also a defendant in the Harvey case, however this is not their first win against Nunes. 

First filed in October of last year, the claim starts with text messages between Parnas and Harvey presented as evidence during last year’s congressional Ukraine investigation. 

Parnas was indicted by a federal grand jury for funneling foreign money to Americans in exchange for influence over U.S.-Ukraine relations. He later participated in congressional testimony during Trump’s first impeachment hearing where he presented the texts as proof of the conspiracy. 

CNN Senior Reporter Vicky Ward reported on the texts and details about Parnas’ interactions with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Victor Shokin, further expanding the allegations which yielded impeachment in the House but failed to survive the Senate. 

In the months that followed, Harvey and Nunes took CNN, Parnas, his attorney Joseph Bondy and Ward to federal court. There Nunes claimed CNN and Ward’s reporting, as well as words uttered by Bondy on behalf of his client, amounted to a false accusation that the congressman was “participating in an effort to aid and abet the commission of criminal, unethical, and dishonest conduct.” 

But Wednesday afternoon, Bennett swatted the case away on technical grounds.

“Although their statements may have been accessible online to Maryland residents, the individual Defendants did not ‘expressly aim’ their statements to the state, nor ‘continuously and deliberately exploit’ Maryland as some forum or market for their speech,” wrote Bennet, who said the court lacked jurisdiction over the case.

“Maryland’s long-arm statute does not reach Parnas nor Bondy, and even if there was a statutory basis for jurisdiction,” he added. “Exercising such jurisdiction in this case would violate due process.”

Maryland’s long-arm statute requires the offending speech to have certain links to the state in order to be heard, and while Harvey’s Maryland residence wasn’t enough to keep the case in his court, Bennet said, had he heard the merits, the aide would still face an uphill battle. 

“The linked documents plainly show correspondence between Parnas and Harvey and reveal their discussions regarding interviews with Ukrainian officials,” he wrote about one of the 2- statements submitted by Nunes and the aide that were all picked apart. “The CNN reporters’ interpretation of the messages between Harvey and Parnas, and their effect on Nunes, is not actionable as defamation.”

And while Harvey argued his status as an aide should protect him as less of a public figure, increasing the threshold on a defamation claim, Bennet pushed back on that theory as well. 

“Given the perceivable and presumably actual importance of Harvey’s current position, as well as his significant history of public service, including his appointment to the National Security Council, this Court considers Harvey to be a public official and was therefore required to plead actual malice in this case,” the judge wrote. 

“[Nunes] used Harvey as a proxy for this, but he’s a bit player,” said government watchdog and Public Citizen litigator Paul Levy who pointed to the use of Harvey’s residence as a shade to give the Congressman the chance to have his heard case where it shouldn’t be.

Levy also pointed toward Bennet’s defamation takedown as well and called the failed filing the result of lesser lawyering by Nune’s regular Charlottesville Lawyer attorney Stephen Biss.

“There are some very able defamation plaintiff lawyers in the state of Virginia but I would not say Biss has proven himself to be one of them,” he said of the attorney’s handful of losses as he’s represented Nunes around the country. 

Even Bennet mentions Nunes’ recent court record in a footnote on the filing. 

“One of Harvey’s lawyers in this case has also represented Congressman Nunes in his various lawsuits,” wrote the judge before listing the dismissed disputes. “This action closely parrots the allegations made by Congressman Nunes in those lawsuits.”

That list starts back in June when CNN avoided discovery in an ongoing defamation claim against the network. Around the same time, a state judge in the Richmond, Virginia suburb of Henrico removed Twitter from another claim, this time against a Nunes-critical parody account claiming to be one of the congressman’s cows. 

Twitter was granted protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a long-time target for Nunes who claims it censors conservatives. The ruling affirmed protection of the anonymous bovine who gained over 700,000 Twitter followers in the wake of their dispute.

And in September an Iowa judge threw out most of another claim, this time against Esquire magazine, after the publication ran a story on his family farm in Sibley, Iowa.

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