NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Court of Appeals last week upheld the dismissal of a nearly 5-year-old defamation lawsuit filed by former state GOP Executive Director Mark Winslow against U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., and his 2010 campaign manager, John "Chip" Saltsman.
The suit grew out of the 3rd Congressional District's bitter 2010 GOP primary, a multicandidate slugfest in which Winslow managed the campaign of former Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Robin Smith.
Fleischmann eked out a victory over Smith. In January 2011, Winslow filed suit against Saltsman and the state Republican Party. He charged he had been defamed in Fleischmann campaign ads and by Saltsman's public comments.
Winslow also charged the state Republican Party violated confidential agreements on a buyout. Fleischmann was added later to the lawsuit. The state GOP settled out of court in 2013.
In dismissing the case, Appellate Judge David Dinkins wrote that "because Mr. Fleischman and Mr. Saltsman demonstrated that the undisputed facts negate the element of actual malice which is essential to the defamation and false light claims, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment."
Judges Frank Clement Jr. and Andy Bennett concurred.
Efforts to reach Winslow attorney Gary Blackburn on Friday were unsuccessful. Fleischmann's office had no comment.
Winslow alleged Saltsman obtained a confidential agreement regarding his severance pay from the state GOP, where Winslow had worked for Smith prior to her congressional bid, and used the information to pummel Smith in an avalanche of television attack ads.
Fleischmann and Saltsman, then the congressman's chief of staff, were deposed under oath. Fleischmann paid Saltsman's legal bills.
Winslow asked for $750,000 in damages, claiming he couldn't find a job with other Republican groups or candidates.
Saltsman said in his deposition that the employment documents were left in an envelope in his garage.
Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Joe Binkley Jr. dismissed the remaining case against Fleischmann and Saltsman in 2014. Binkley said Winslow was a public figure and that he failed to show that Fleischmann and Saltsman showed actual malice in the ads, which were mainly aimed at discrediting Smith.
The Appeals Court noted that a month before the primary, the Fleischmann campaign purchased television and print advertisements stating Smith "left the state Republican party over $100,000.00 in debt[;] [w]orse, on the way out the door, Smith gave her future Congressional campaign staff lavish bonuses."
The judges also noted a July 19, 2010, radio interview on Chattanooga station WGOW when Saltsman stated Winslow "was paid out of the Republican Party funds for three months while he was working for Robin Smith"s campaign. So, in fact, he was getting party funds to work on her congressional campaign."
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