published Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Chuck Fleischmann foes want open court filings


by Chris Carroll

Response to Fleischmann motion
Response to Fleischmann motion

WASHINGTON -- Legal opponents of U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann are fighting the congressman's second request to conceal his own court filings from the public.

Nashville-based political operative Mark Winslow filed a furious response Monday to Fleischmann's May 29 motion to seal 1,800 pages of polling data, strategy memos and internal emails. The trove represents Winslow's request for documents in a Davidson County lawsuit against Fleischmann dating to the 2010 election cycle.

Winslow is suing Fleischmann and Chip Saltsman, the congressman's longtime aide, for defamation stemming from the 2010 Republican primary.

Fleischmann has called the lawsuit "frivolous" and politically motivated. Last year, the second-term Ooltewah Republican made a near-identical request to seal depositions in the case. The judge denied it on the grounds that he's "an elected public official" -- a point Winslow attorney Gary Blackburn emphasized in the Monday filing.

"Mr. Fleischmann remains a public official," Blackburn wrote. "The press is entitled to explore and the public is entitled to see the means by which Mr. Fleischmann measured the success of his lies."

Fleischmann declined to comment through a spokesman Tuesday.

It's unclear how long Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Joe Binkley Jr. will take to rule on the motion. Last year he dismissed Fleischmann's request two months after it was filed. Trial is set for Feb. 24.

Winslow worked for Robin Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairwoman and Fleischmann's biggest rival in the August 2010 3rd District GOP primary. Winslow says Fleischmann's polling data motivated Saltsman to create a misleading television ad and otherwise attack Smith.

Winslow argues that the ad and attacks implicitly criticized him and ruined his prospects as a political professional. (The ad never mentions Winslow by name.) He is seeking $750,000 in damages.

Fleischmann, an attorney, has agreed to turn over the documents for the purposes of the lawsuit, but only if they are kept under lock and key. In his motion for a protective order, the congressman deplores "political opponents" who could obtain his internal files "just over a year from the [2014] election."

Blackburn's response states he's not seeking any internal Fleischmann documents from last year's bruising campaign against Scottie Mayfield and Weston Wamp. At one point in the brief, he refers to the 2010 campaign documents as "stale."

But Fleischmann's motion suggests that his campaign is a private entity whose shareholders (donors) bankroll trade secrets (strategy, private research and polling.) It says the campaign materials normally would be unavailable to anyone outside a campaign's inner circle.

In parts of Blackburn's motion, the attorney strays from the details of his client's story and passionately argues for what he sees as the public's right to research an elected official's political apparatus.

"A political campaign is an expensive, more or less organized effort to persuade," Blackburn wrote. "If the evidence, as it were, presented by a candidate is knowingly false, there is a public interest in learning of the lies."

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

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