REGIONAL—A California congressman has filed a multimillion lawsuit over a magazine article about a large dairy farm his family owns near Sibley, saying it was a political attack on him.
U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa in Sioux City on Monday, asking for $75 million in damages from Hearst Magazines and reporter Ryan Lizza.
The Republican said the Sept. 30, 2018, Esquire story, titled “Devin Nunes’ Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret,” was defamatory. He also accused the reporter and magazine company of a common law conspiracy against him.
The story focused on NuStar Farms, managed by Nunes’ father, Anthony Nunes Jr. It claimed the business used undocumented workers, and Lizza alleged that he was followed by members of the Nunes family and made to feel paranoid while reporting the story in N’West Iowa.
Lizza reported that all dairy operations in the area rely on undocumented workers and feared a high-profile magazine story could bring unwanted attention to that. During his time in the area, he spoke with Sibley officials, local residents and dairy owners and workers.
He attempted to interview Anthony Nunes Jr. but said the congressman’s father rebuffed his attempts.
Rep. Nunes did not respond to attempts to contact him and calls to NuStar Farms were not returned.
As reported in Esquire, Rep. Nunes, his brother, Anthony III and their parents, Anthony Jr. and Toni Dian, sold their California dairy farm in 2006. Anthony Jr. and Toni Dian then bought the Sibley operation and relocated to Iowa in 2007, along with the congressman’s brother Anthony Nunes III and his wife, Lori.
Rep. Nunes’ uncle, Gerald Nunes owns a dairy farm in California.
New report filed
In August, Rep. Nunes released a financial disclosure form reporting that he owns Tulare County, California, farmland worth less than $15,000 that generates no income for him. Delaney Marsco, legal counsel on ethics for the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, told The Fresno Bee, Nunes’ hometown paper which has endorsed him in the past, that the filing raised questions.
“Either he had a tiny stake in this farm all along and he’s been improperly filing financial disclosures, or he bought a tiny, tiny farm this year in order to protect his reputation as a farmer in his district,” Marsco told the newspaper.
It reported that a “search of property records did not show any land bought by Nunes or his wife in 2018 and the only current property under their ownership is a home in Tulare. Past records show he did own farmland in western Tulare that he purchased in 2003, 2004 and 2005, but parcel numbers indicate those are now under different ownership since at least 2008.”
Since he began his political career, Nunes has described himself as a dairy farmer, since he grew up on a dairy farm, owned cattle since he was a teen and invested in the business with his family. Reports that the family dairy operation is in fact in Iowa, not California, was seen as politically damaging.
Several Iowa dairy farms have been purchased by Californians in recent years, attracted by lower land prices, fewer concerns about drought and technological advances, including better-ventilated barns.
Nunes defeated Democrat Phil Arballo by 5 percent in 2018, the closest race of his career; he won in landslides seven times and was unopposed in the 2010 general election. Despite serving in a heavily Republican district, Nunes was in a competitive race in 2018 and Arballo, a Fresno County prosecutor, already is mounting a campaign for 2020.
Nunes has filed several lawsuits this year, targeting publishing company McClatchy, the owner of The Fresno Bee, the largest paper in his congressional district, claiming he was defamed in a 2018 news story about a winery he co-owns that hosted a fundraising cruise on a yacht. The story, citing a lawsuit filed by a server aboard the cruise, stated that cocaine was used, investors solicited underage prostitutes and the server feared for her safety. Nunes, who was not aboard the cruise, labeled the story “character assassination” and filed a lawsuit, which the paper said it would contest.
He also sued Twitter and two online accounts that use satire to attack him — one known as Devin Nunes’ Cow, the other Devin Nunes’ Mom — as well as Liz Mair, a veteran Republican political adviser who has been critical of him, seeking $250 million. The lawsuit states that Nunes suffered “an orchestrated defamation campaign of stunning breadth and scope, one that no human should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life.”
It states that the defamation has continued since the election. “It must be stopped.”
Mair replied in an opinion column published in USA Today in April, saying free speech allowed her to criticize Nunes.
“Of course, a formal, legal response from me to Rep. Nunes’ lawsuit will be forthcoming,” she wrote.
“But in the meantime, it’s vitally important that the entire nation understands what this lawsuit is really about: A sitting member of the U.S. government, specifically, a congressman, is trying to stifle free speech — mine, yours and every other American’s — by using litigation as a cudgel to bully and intimidate.”
Nunes also sued three Californians whom he claims defamed him by casting doubt if he actually was a farmer, seeking to remove that term from his description on the 2018 ballot. That lawsuit was dropped in September.
The lawsuits had a unintended impact. The two parody accounts reported jumps in their number of followers. Devin Nunes’ Cow went from 1,000 followers to more than 621,000, while the other account, now known as Devin Nunes’ Alt-Mom, reported an increase of more than 50,000 followers. New Twitter accounts were created as well, including Devin Nunes’ Goat, Devin Nunes’ Lawyer and Devin Nunes’ Grandma.
But the Republican congressman, a strong supporter of President Donald Trump and the ranking Republican and former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also benefited, using the lawsuits to boost his campaign fundraising. He reported raising several thousand dollars shortly after the lawsuits were filed.