A former Federal Election Commission chairman hired by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon says the complaint the Journal Inquirer filed with the FEC against the company McMahon co-founded, World Wrestling Entertainment Inc., is “frivolous” and “utterly baseless.”
“The idea that an American corporation cannot seek a retraction from a newspaper for allegedly publishing libelous statements about the corporation without violating federal election laws is ludicrous,” the lawyer, Michael Toner, said in a statement released Monday by the McMahon campaign.
Toner, who also has served as chief counsel to the Republican National Committee, general counsel to the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign, and counsel to the 1996 Dole-Kemp presidential campaign, added that the JI’s complaint doesn’t contain any allegations against the McMahon campaign.
“If the FEC names the McMahon campaign as a respondent in this matter, the campaign looks forward to filing a response and having the FEC promptly dismiss the complaint,” he said.
McMahon paid Wiley Rein $33,276 for legal consulting between January and March, according to her campaign’s latest quarterly report to the FEC.
Before joining Wiley Rein, Toner was a partner at the national firm of Bryan Cave Strategies, heading its government affairs division. McMahon had hired Bryan Cave as a legal consultant in her 2010 campaign.
The JI last week complained to the FEC that WWE, the company McMahon headed that’s now run by her husband, violated federal election law when it assisted McMahon’s campaign by threatening to sue the newspaper for criticizing her.
It charged that the corporation’s assistance was rendered by WWE Senior Vice President Brian Flinn, who sent the letter accusing the JI of libel.
Flinn was responding to two commentaries written by the JI’s managing editor, Chris Powell. Powell had asserted that McMahon, also the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in 2010 when she spent $50 million of her own money on her campaign, was trying to buy the election and had drawn her fortune from the business of violence and pornography. The columns did not mention WWE.
The corporation maintains that its threat of a lawsuit was intended to protect its good name.
Flinn demanded that the JI retract Powell’s commentary by Monday or the corporation would “seek legal and all available remedies.”
The JI through its lawyer, Richard P. Weinstein of West Hartford, refused the demand.
In the newspaper’s complaint to the FEC lodged last week, Publisher Elizabeth S. Ellis said WWE’s threat was “meant to discourage our right to comment on Mrs. McMahon.”
Weinstein said the only purpose of Flinn’s letter was “to use WWE to defend the candidate and to seek to have a chilling effect on journalists in Connecticut who might otherwise criticize Linda McMahon during her campaign.”
WWE sent copies of its letter threatening the JI to many other Connecticut news organizations.
WWE’s response to the JI’s complaint, offered by Flinn on Monday, mirrored that of Toner. He said the corporation acted “solely and specifically” to defend its business and reputation from the “reckless and false statement that WWE is in the business of pornography.”
He also said the dispute was “not about politics or Linda McMahon’s campaign,” and that WWE was “not attempting to prevent the media from exercising its First Amendment rights.”
McMahon reportedly said last week that she was unaware of WWE’s threat against the JI until reading her campaign’s press clippings. She neither criticized nor defended the action, saying only that the corporation had to act in its best interest.
McMahon’s husband, Vincent K. McMahon, controls 81 percent of the company’s common stock and the company has told federal securities regulators that he “effectively exercises control over our affairs.”
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