in Houston, Texas

Texas state House candidate Ann Witt sued over campaign website attacking Rep. Jim Murphy

Tuesday, May 08, 2012, 11:31AM CST
By Steve Miller
Texas state Capitol

Houston ad agency Rehak Creative Services has filed a defamation lawsuit against statehouse candidate Ann Witt, claiming that a Web site where she documents her opponent’s campaign donations amounted to libel of the agency.

A spokeswoman for Witt said that the site, How to Succeed in Government, is fact-based and will not come down. The Witt campaign has not yet filed a response to the claim.

And “there could be more to come,” said Ellen Witt, the daughter of Ann, who is challenging incumbent Jim Murphy in the Republican primary for state representative for the Houston-area District 133. Much of the information on the Web site was also disseminated in a Witt campaign mailer last month.

The portal attacking Murphy chronicles the work of his company, District Management Services, which includes a 2012 contract with Westchase District calling for a monthly fee of $22,491 in addition to other payments for consultancy and an upfront payment of $7,711. His title at the district is general manager, according to the district’s Web site.

The Witt campaign site also outlines the numerous Westchase contracts handed out to Murphy donors, including Rehak Creative Services, whose owner, Robert Rehak, has donated at least $7,000 to Murphy’s campaigns since 2005.

Other contract-holding contributors named on the site include executives with Phonoscope, BMS Management and Brown & Gay Engineers.

“Double Dipping. Skirting the Law. Bilking Taxpayers. Rewarding Cronies,” a banner at the bottom of one page claims in fairly standard attack ad format. The site went live in mid-April.

Rehak claims in its petition filed April 30 in Harris County District Court that the “Succeed” Web site contains a number of “defamatory and illegal statements and references” with regard to Rehak including:

  • “Material misstatements as to the amount of Rehak’s contributions to Jim Murphy’s campaigns, which were intended to and did create a materially false impression as to timing of such contributions.”
  • “Materially false allegations of a quid pro quo between Rehak’s contributions and a contract awarded by the Westchase District to RCS."
  • “Materially false implication that RSC and Rehak were unqualified ‘cronies’ of Representative Murphy, rather than being highly qualified to participate in the competitive bidding process that RCS won” in 2003.

The suit also alleges that the statements were published without an attempt to contact RCS “or attempting to verify the accuracy of the statements.”

“The action is meritless,” Ellen Witt said. “It appears to be an effort by a friend of Jim Murphy trying to discredit the campaign. It’s a flimsy effort to detract from the real issue.”

She added that “most people in this district have not been aware of the enormous salary that he is taking as a government employee and independent contractor. Our government is supposed to be about service, and he’s turned it into a cash cow at the expense of taxpayers.”

She noted that, as the site states, it is illegal for a state legislator to hold a second government job, but the law does not prohibit consultancy work. The site links to a query sent by former state Rep. Joe Nixon to the state Attorney General’s office asking if a legislator may also work as president of a municipal management district. Nixon introduced numerous bills regarding the powers of the Westchase District.

Texas Watchdog reported last month on state Rep. Vicki Truitt's no-bid contracts as a consultant to the public hospital system in Tarrant County.

Patrick Gaas, an attorney representing Rehak, said that the case was not political.

"I don't know Mr. Murphy or Miss Witt, and I personally don't have a dog in that fight," Gaas said. He had sent the defendants a cease and desist letter before filing the petition although the information was already out there via the mailer.

Gaas stressed, as the petition does, that Rehak was contracted before Murphy was elected, therefore the insinuation that Rehak's contributions had anything to do with the contract was false.

A proposal listed on the "Succeed" web site was finalized in May 2007, shortly after Murphy took office. The other documents regarding Rehak are production estimates from 2003.

Murphy did not return calls.

His campaign posted an item on his campaign Web site that claims Witt's attack is "false and easy to disprove" by stating that he was a member of the Westchase district board from 1995 to 1997, "served as the Westchase District President until 2006 and has not been a Westchase District employee since then" and was elected to the statehouse in 2006.

Murphy lost to Democrat Kristi Thibaut in 2008, but bested her 56 to 42 percent in 2010. His victory was due in part, ironically, to a hit job ad by the Republican Party of Texas that linked Thibaut to ACORN, a political third rail at the time.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user eschipul, used via a Creative Commons license.

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