U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is now a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that Chip Saltsman, his chief of staff, defamed and slandered an aide for the congressman's top rival during last year's Republican primary.
"As Chuck Fleischmann's lackey, Mr. Saltsman acted only upon the instruction and approval of Chuck Fleischmann and on his behalf," said a court filing for Mark Winslow, the former aide to Robin Smith.
Financial disclosures show Fleischmann's campaign has already paid $7,565.38 to the Nashville law firm defending Saltsman, raising the question of whether a sitting congressman can use campaign donations for his own legal defense.
Jordan Powell, a spokesman for Fleischmann, said the congressman "was advised by counsel not to comment on any pending litigation."
Earlier this year, Fleischmann's office consulted with the federal agency that oversees election law. In a May 26 advisory opinion, the Federal Election Commission determined the Saltsman legal expenditures were campaign-related and not for "personal use." The opinion did not address whether a congressman is allowed to use such funds, but it hinted at the issue.
"[The] lawsuit against Mr. Saltsman would not exist irrespective of Representative Fleischmann's campaign," the opinion states.
Gary Blackburn, Winslow's attorney, said amending the original complaint to include Fleischmann as a defendant didn't take "any more than 15 minutes."
"If Saltsman's liable, so is Fleischmann," he said. "You're really talking about the same set of underlying facts."
Fleischmann became a defendant in Winslow's lawsuit about the same time Smith, the former chairwoman of the state Republican Party, began talking publicly about challenging the congressman again. In an interview, Smith said she'll make a decision about whether she'll run in 2012 within the next few weeks. She said she wouldn't rule out hiring Winslow for a rematch.
"He lives in Nashville -- it would be difficult to ask him to uproot again," Smith said Friday, "but that's not something that would be completely out of the question."
In 2010, Saltsman managed Fleischmann's campaign. Winslow served as the Tennessee Republican Party's chief of staff while Smith was chairwoman, becoming Smith's media director during last year's primary.
Fleischmann beat Smith by 2 percentage points after an acrimonious primary race.
Acting as a Fleischmann consultant a month before the election, Saltsman "improperly obtained" Winslow's confidential employment records and gave them to reporters, the complaint filed by Winslow states. In a subsequent radio interview, Saltsman and Fleischmann falsely accused Smith of using state GOP funds to pay Winslow for services to her campaign, according to the complaint.
Saltsman has denied the allegations. In a recent interview, he defended campaign donations as legal payments, equating political work with the private sector.
"I think most companies, when their employees get sued for doing their jobs, their offices cover that," he said last month.