Matt Brown may sue over Raimondo attack ad, lawyer says

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A lawyer for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Brown on Tuesday demanded that incumbent Gina Raimondo’s campaign take back a recent series of attacks on Brown, and suggested Brown could file suit over them, as their primary battle heats up.

In a cease-and-desist letter released Tuesday by the Brown campaign, attorney Laurence Gold of the Washington law firm Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold called the attacks “false and defamatory.”

He also argued that “even measured against the high bar set by the law for defaming public figures, the Raimondo Campaign’s statements measure up; they were not mere campaign hyperbole.”

Raimondo spokeswoman Emily Samsel dismissed the letter. “The ad informing Rhode Islanders about Matt Brown’s history of fiscal mismanagement is straightforward and factual, and we stand by it,” she said. “This is a last-gasp stunt by a failed candidate who has misled Rhode Islanders and distorted the governor’s record from beginning to end.”

Brown, who served as Rhode Island secretary of state from 2003 to 2007, has been coming under a big-money assault from Raimondo and her allies as they grow increasingly concerned about the strength of his progressive primary challenge. Raimondo has refused to debate Brown, accusing him of telling “lies” about a fundraiser she held in Boston with executives from the company seeking to buy Care New England.

Late last week, Raimondo began airing her first TV attack ad against Brown, which echoes criticisms of him that her campaign has also been making in mailers and statements to reporters. They largely center on his failed 2006 bid for U.S. Senate and subsequent work for Global Zero, an anti-nuclear nonprofit he co-founded.

The biggest dispute between the two sides is over the fundraising scandal that helped doom Brown’s Senate bid more than a decade ago.

The issue came to light in March 2006, when it came out that Brown’s campaign had encouraged its supporters – including Richard Bready, then CEO of Nortek – to contribute to the state Democratic parties of Hawaii, Massachusetts and Maine. Those parties then made donations to the Brown campaign.

Critics charged that Brown was attempting an end-run around political contribution limits, and The Providence Journal’s editorial board suggested it represented “money laundering.” Maine’s Democratic chairman resigned over the controversy, and Brown dropped out of the Senate race the following month.

The following year, however, the Federal Elections Commission ruled that the transactions had not violated federal law. While Brown has emphasized that 2007 FEC finding as a belated vindication over the contributions scandal, he has also acknowledged it was still a public-relations debacle.

“I knew it was allowed under FEC laws,” Brown said in March on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. But, he said, “I did miss how it could be perceived badly, and that’s my responsibility and that obviously created a problem for that campaign, and that campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. And that’s entirely my responsibility.”

Former Rep. Spencer Dickinson, who is also running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, has joined Raimondo in criticizing Brown over what happened in 2006.

“Sometimes I hear [Brown] criticizing her and I just kind of try to look into his mind, and I hear him saying to himself, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting away with this,'” Dickinson said during a debate on WPRO radio last week. “I don’t believe everything I hear,” Dickinson added. “And to me, his report of what happened is not what I recall in the newspaper.”

Fact-checking the Raimondo-Brown dispute

Raimondo’s new commercial claims that Brown “ran” his 2006 Senate race “with apparent laundering of campaign contributions.” Gold argues that claim was “completely discredited” by the FEC’s final ruling, and noted that the Rhode Island GOP didn’t appeal the decision. He also took issue with a Raimondo aide characterizing the FEC investigation as “criminal” when it was civil.

In addition, Raimondo’s ad highlights the financial fallout from Brown’s 2006 campaign, which ended $417,000 in debt, including $211,250 owed to Brown himself. The commercial claims that Brown “hid $150,000 in debt” and “stiffed his workers over $100,000 in pay” that year.

The first allegation relates to a settlement Brown’s campaign reached with the FEC in October 2007, acknowledging it had been two to three weeks late in reporting almost $150,000 in campaign debt. Gold – who also served as Brown’s 2006 campaign lawyer – described the oversights as “inadvertent,” attributing them to late-arriving invoices. Brown agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1,100 and shut down the campaign account.

In his letter, Gold charges that the Raimondo campaign is mischaracterizing this sequence of events as “a deliberate act of concealment” even though the FEC “accepted” the Brown team’s explanation “and resolved the matter administratively.”

The second allegation – that Brown “stiffed his workers over $100,000 in pay” in 2006 – actually involves campaign consultants.

Brown resolved his campaign debt by paying nine vendors half of what they were owed, leaving them to write off a bit more than $100,000. In his letter, Gold describes this as “unfortunate, but quite typical of unsuccessful campaigns” and says the campaign’s actual employees were all paid in full.

The final statement that Gold takes issue with involves the Raimondo campaign accusation that Brown “paid himself nearly $300,000 a year” running Global Zero.

The amount Brown earned is not in dispute: IRS records show Brown’s compensation at Global Zero was $299,138 in 2016, $296,619 in 2015 and $314,807 in 2014.

But Brown’s Global Zero co-founder, Bruce Blair, has said he set Brown’s salary there. (Blair was also a paid Global Zero employee, earning $150,000 in 2016.) Therefore, Gold said the Raimondo campaign is wrong to suggest “that Mr. Brown controlled the matter” and suggested the commercial “implicitly accuses him of self-dealing,” which could be an IRS violation.

Gold concludes by asking the Raimondo campaign to preserve all its documents and other communications related to the attacks on Brown, “in anticipation of litigation that Mr. Brown may bring related to this matter.” The campaign did not indicate how seriously it is considering going to court.

“Gina Raimondo’s campaign is panicking because they know Rhode Island is ready for change and that our grassroots campaign is on the verge of major political upset,” Brown said in a statement. He is also asking broadcasters to stop airing the negative ad.

Last week, Brown’s campaign also said the Raimondo ad was “false” when it says he “left Rhode Island for five years” to run Global Zero in Washington, saying he was there for a little more than four years. The Raimondo campaign said its source is an interview Brown did with Eyewitness News in March, when he said, “So we – my family and I – moved down there for about five years as we built up Global Zero.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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