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Nebraska GOP politicians get first hearing in defamation case over sex assault claims

The hourlong meeting brought about a tentative schedule, with briefs and responses due in July.

BEATRICE, Neb. (CN) — A Nebraska judge sat lawyers for a state senator and a defeated, Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate in a room Tuesday to get them to agree on depositions in a defamation lawsuit over allegations of sexual battery.

In the end, little was resolved, though the attorneys for both sides seemed to be on friendlier terms than they were an hour earlier and had agreed on a path forward.

“We are going to be trading some language back and forth in the coming days to hopefully bring those conversations and conceptual agreements into execution, and potentially dispose of the issues for the court,” said David Lopez, one of two attorneys representing Republican state Senator Julie Slama.

It was the latest chapter in a drama that began in April with a news report on the website of news nonprofit Nebraska Examiner, wherein Slama and seven other women alleged Herbster had groped them.

Herbster has denied any wrongdoing, calling the story a “hit job” and saying the allegations were political in nature. Slama supported Jim Pillen, a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and business owner — and All-Big Eight defensive back for the 70s-era Nebraska Cornhuskers football team — when Pillen successfully ran in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

Herbster, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for governor at the time. He narrowly lost to Pillen weeks after accusations were made public. Slama, 26, is the only one of the eight accusers who allowed her name to be published, though another woman later came forward.

Herbster did not show up for a deposition in early May. His attorneys argued in court Tuesday that he simply couldn’t: He was in the final leg of a primary fight.

“Everyone knew he was in the last week of the campaign,” Theodore Boecker, the Herbster attorney who argued for him Tuesday, told District Court Judge Rick Schreiner during the afternoon proceedings in the cavernous, renovated courtroom in the Gage County Courthouse, a beige, Romanesque building near downtown Beatrice.

“The ways campaigns operate, people know a candidate for the Republican governorship is not going to be able to sit for an all-day deposition,” Boecker said.

Herbster also did not show up for court on Tuesday — not that he necessarily had to. But Slama was there, sitting with her attorneys. And in brief remarks after the hearing, she needled Herbster for not being present.

“He didn’t show up to his deposition, so I’m not necessarily surprised,” she said when asked about his absence. “At the end of the day, election outcomes, politics, have nothing to do with why we are here today.”

In the article, Slama said that at the 2019 Douglas County GOP’s Elephant Remembers dinner, Herbster reached up her skirt and touched her in an inappropriate manner without her consent, the Examiner reported. The incident occurred in the middle of a crowded ballroom. Another person says they saw the incident and told the website about it.

The legal portion of the drama began on April 22, when Herbster sued Slama, accusing the lawmaker of defamation. Slama filed a counterclaim days later and an amended counterclaim in May.

Tuesday’s meeting came during a scheduled hearing regarding several procedural motions made by both parties. After an attorney for Slama said they tried to reschedule the deposition May 20 and heard nothing back but “crickets,” Schreiner told the attorneys he would find them a side room to knock out that issue and others.

Boecker had said he wanted to resolve the rest of the pleadings before going into depositions.

“Have you met with opposing counsel to discuss those conditions?” Schreiner asked.

Boecker cleared his throat.

“No, we have not, your honor.”

“The lawyers who practice in front of me, 99.9 percent of the time can be together and act like professionals and negotiate things,” Schreiner replied. “And I don’t think that you are unable to do so.”

A hard date for Herbster’s deposition was not announced in court after the hourlong meeting. But briefs and responses are due the first half of July.

Herbster’s case was filed in Johnson County and further proceedings may be held at the Johnson County Courthouse in Tecumseh. Schreiner’s district includes both Gage and Johnson Counties in southeast Nebraska.

Pillen will face Democrat Carol Blood, a state senator, in the fall. But in this conservative state, a GOP primary win makes Pillen the favorite in November.

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