published Saturday, June 1st, 2013

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann asks judge to protect campaign secrets


by Chris Carroll
Chuck Fleischmann
Chuck Fleischmann
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — For the second time, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is asking a Nashville judge to seal court records that would reveal his campaign's inner workings.

The Ooltewah Republican's goal is to prevent political opponents from seeing or distributing 1,800 pages of polling research, internal emails and strategy memos.

Someone suing Fleischmann requested the documents as part of the civil discovery process. In a filing, Fleischmann's attorney said the congressman would supply the papers as long as they're hidden from public view.

"The Court should order that any of these documents filed with the Court should be placed under seal, only to be opened in accordance with a subsequent court order," the motion for a protective order states.

Fleischmann, an attorney, is joined in the motion by his co-defendant, Chip Saltsman, the congressman's longtime political adviser and onetime Washington-based chief of staff.

Both men are fighting a defamation lawsuit stemming from claims in a three-year-old Fleischmann TV ad. Documents filed in Davidson County Circuit Court this week show the case is set for trial Feb. 24.

Political operative Mark Winslow filed the lawsuit. During the 2010 Republican primary, he worked for Fleischmann's toughest opponent, former Tennessee GOP Chairwoman Robin Smith.

In an interview Friday, Winslow attorney Gary Blackburn said Fleischmann's polling data motivated Saltsman to create "negative ads" that twisted the truth and ruined Winslow's professional reputation.

"If a congressman's tracking the success of lies," Blackburn said, "shouldn't the public be allowed to know that?"

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Through a spokesman, Fleischmann declined to comment. He has described the lawsuit as "frivolous" and politically motivated. Saltsman, a well-known Republican strategist who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, did not respond to a request for comment.

In their motion, Fleischmann and Saltsman say public disclosure would be unfair "just over a year from the next election and only months away from the beginning ... of the next election cycle." They assert that the campaign paid the cost for the materials and that opponents normally would not be allowed to see them. And they defend the donors who ultimately bankrolled their work.

"It would certainly shock ordinary citizens who supported and donated to the Defendants' campaign to know that their hard-earned money, in the end, was used to assist an opponent of their chosen candidate through the guise and machination of discovery set forth by the Plaintiff," the motion states.

On his own, Fleischmann made a similar request last year, asking Judge Joe P. Binkley Jr. to seal depositions and other filings during his primary showdown with Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp. Binkley denied the congressman's request on the grounds that he's "an elected public official."

Among other revelations, those depositions showed Fleischmann sometimes didn't see his own ads before they aired despite the disclaimer "I approve this message" included in the ads. They also showed Saltsman altered documents for a Fleischmann TV ad, using Tennessee's state seal to make a nongovernment report seem official.

If Binkley denies this year's motion, the documents could impact 2014 races beyond Tennessee's 3rd District. Saltsman recently signed on to oversee the campaign of state Rep. Joe Carr, a Rutherford County Republican and one of several challengers to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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