U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann testified in a deposition that he never saw some of his own campaign ads before they hit the airwaves, despite a federally mandated voiceover joined with each ad: "I'm Chuck Fleischmann, and I approve this message."
In a separate deposition, Chip Saltsman, the freshman congressman's former campaign consultant and current chief of staff, testified that he approved a Fleischmann ad that included a "created" computer image featuring Tennessee's state seal superimposed over a nongovernment document.
The national campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, Saltsman also said he never confirmed the validity of confidential documents used in a powerful attack ad against Fleischmann's chief opponent in 2010's 3rd Congressional District Republican primary.
The pair gave depositions in a lawsuit filed in January 2011 by Mark Winslow, the former chief of staff for the Tennessee Republican Party. He sued Fleischmann and Saltsman for defamation, inducement to breach a contract and invasion of privacy and is seeking $750,000 in damages.
Internal Fleischmann campaign details were obtained from depositions the congressman tried to keep secret. In a protective order filed March 29 on behalf of Fleischmann, attorney Brent S. Usery indicated that "2012 is an election year," adding that the congressman's testimony would include confidential "campaign strategy, oppositional research and campaign spending decisions."
A judge denied Fleischmann's request in May, three months before the congressman's Aug. 2 Republican primary election against three challengers, including Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp.
Fleischmann campaign spokesman Jordan Powell issued a written statement late Friday.
"This confirms what we've said from the beginning -- it's a politically motivated lawsuit designed to attack Congressman Fleischmann at a politically expedient time," the statement said. "And with it being three weeks before early voting, this proves our point."
The Chattanooga Times Free Press obtained written transcripts of depositions for Fleischmann and Saltsman, both of which were filed Friday afternoon in Davidson County Circuit Court in Nashville.
While Fleischmann said "I don't know," "I wouldn't know" and "I don't recall" a few dozen times over the course of a four-hour deposition, the sworn testimony offers a rare glimpse inside his campaign playbook.
"If you're the Fleischmann campaign, you don't want the campaign focused on this," Vanderbilt University political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer said.
The testimony raises questions about who's really in charge in Fleischmann's office, Oppenheimer said.
"Candidates are on the move and entrust people to do stuff for them," he said. "That sometimes gets them in trouble."
In the depositions:
• Saltsman testified that he obtained confidential Tennessee Republican Party personnel files he said were left anonymously on the steps of his home's garage. He used the documents for campaign ads, but testified that he never attempted to verify their authenticity.
• Saltsman used the personnel files to make the case that former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman Robin Smith, Fleischmann's top competitor in the 2010 GOP primary, paid "lavish bonuses" to then-state GOP chief of staff Winslow about the time Winslow left the party and began working for Smith's congressional campaign in 2009. Fleischmann admitted under oath to having no literal grounds to make the "lavish bonuses" charge.
• A new state GOP party chairman -- current head Chris Devaney -- terminated Winslow and agreed to pay $12,504 in severance payments about the same time Winslow went to work for Smith. Devaney testified that Smith never was involved with the payments.
Winslow's Nashville-based attorney, W. Gary Blackburn, separately deposed Devaney, Fleischmann and Saltsman.
Blackburn: Did you review your campaign advertisements before they were published?
Fleischmann: I would see some of these. I can't say I saw all of them.
Blackburn: If there's some that you didn't, then we need to talk about which ones that you failed to review.
Fleischmann: I wouldn't know which ones because I can't remember.
Blackburn: Does the candidate actually see the message before he approves it?
Saltsman: Not in all -- not in all cases, no.
Blackburn: Well, he's telling the public that he has?
Blackburn: He's implying it. What about Mr. Fleischmann, did he see the commercials that were ... displayed on his behalf?
Saltsman: He -- I have to think about this for a second -- he saw some of the ads maybe the day of or after they started airing.
STATE OF TENNESSEE SEAL
Saltsman approved a television ad that superimposed Tennessee's official government seal over a visual representation of a private document's cover sheet -- a Tennessee Republican Party financial review the Fleischmann campaign claimed as evidence that Smith left the state party with a deficit.
In the ad, a female voiceover dubbed the visual representation an "official audit" when, Devaney testified, it actually was a routine financial review done when chairpersons leave the party. Saltsman also used the word "audit" in his testimony.
Blackburn: The state of Tennessee did not do an audit of the Republican Party at the conclusion of Robin Smith's term?
Saltsman: [Chattanooga accountant] Joe Decosimo did, or the Decosimo company did.
Blackburn: And they're not the state of Tennessee?
Saltsman: They are not the state of Tennessee.
Blackburn: They weren't employed or paid by the state of Tennessee?
Saltsman: Not by the state of Tennessee. They were paid by the Tennessee Republican Party.
Blackburn: If the State of Tennessee did not do this, then they didn't put a seal of the state of Tennessee on any -- any document, did they?
Saltsman: I guess not, but a lot of people put the state seal on stuff.
Blackburn: How do you go about creating this image? What do you do? ... I'm talking about the thing that has the state seal.
Saltsman: I was in -- I was not in the studio when that image was created, but I assume you do it with software.
Blackburn: You do it with software?
Blackburn: All right. So ... by 'software' you mean this is a computer-created image rather than a document that's photocopied?
Saltsman: The whole 30-second ad was a computer image, yeah.
Fleischmann testified that an unknown person slipped the financial review under his door at his Chattanooga law office. Joseph Decosimo's son, accountant Tom Decosimo, now serves as Fleischmann's campaign finance chairman.
Blackburn: How did you get [Winslow's personnel files]?
Saltsman: They were at my house.
Blackburn: They just showed up?
Saltsman: They left -- somebody left them at my house in an envelope.
Blackburn: On your porch?
Saltsman: I think it was in the garage, actually.
Blackburn: In the garage?
Blackburn: Is your garage closed?
Saltsman: Not always.
Blackburn: You just got home and there's an envelope in the garage?
Saltsman: Yes, sir.
Blackburn: One question I failed to ask. You got these documents delivered in an envelope.
Saltsman: Yes, sir.
Blackburn: How did you know they were genuine?
Saltsman: I just assumed they were. It -- you know, they were signed, and I figured they were.
Blackburn: You've already told me that this document [Winslow's employment agreement] has -- let's start with this: It doesn't have the word 'bonus' in it, does it?
Fleischmann: That's correct.
Blackburn: It doesn't have any provision in it that would indicate how a bonus would be computed if there were one?
Fleischmann: That is correct.
WHO PAID WINSLOW?
Blackburn: Now you know very well that there, in these three documents there's no bonus?
Devaney: This is a -- this is a contract -- as I said, this was a contract between us and Winslow.
Blackburn: Also, the final money that was paid was paid over your signature and by your authority, wasn't it?
Devaney: That's right.
Blackburn: All right. Not Robin's?
Devaney: That's right.
Last year, Fleischmann's campaign received Federal Election Commission approval to pay Saltsman's legal fees in the Winslow lawsuit.
In an October interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Saltsman likened the situation to a company absorbing legal fees "when their employees get sued for doing their jobs."
Fleischmann offered a different explanation under oath, saying Saltsman requested financial assistance because he lacked insurance coverage.
As of March 31, the Fleischmann campaign had paid Saltsman's $36,523 in legal fees out of funds provided by donors, Federal Election Commission records show.
The lawsuit is pending.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...