House Speaker Tim Moore said Wednesday evening that his re-election campaign is paying a New York City law firm to prepare a possible libel lawsuit against a North Carolina media outlet.
In a phone interview with the N.C. Insider State Government News Service, Moore declined to name the media organization. “We are in discussions with the other party and their attorney,” said Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican. “It is an action where I am the one pursuing an action potentially for libel.”
In general, libel refers to a published false statement that damages a person’s reputation, but public officials are rarely successful when they pursue libel suits, experts say.
Andy Munn, a Moore spokesman, confirmed that the speaker’s target was not one of the McClatchy publications in North Carolina, which include The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and the Insider, a daily political newsletter emailed to subscribers.
Moore’s campaign has paid the Big Apple firm Carter, Ledyard and Milburn LLP more than $22,000 since January, according to campaign disclosure reports filed with the State Board of Elections. Asked what those payments were for, Moore said the possible libel case.
Carter, Ledyard and Milburn is a general practice law firm headquartered on Wall Street since 1854, according to its LinkedIn page. Moore’s attorney is John Walsh, whom he described as a “pre-eminent libel attorney in the United States.”
Reached Thursday, Walsh declined to speak about the issue. “I’m not at liberty to make any comment whatsoever about that," he said.
Moore is finishing his second year as House speaker and plans to seek another term at the House’s helm. He is unopposed in November.
Amanda Martin, a media law attorney with Stevens, Martin, Vaughn & Tadych in Raleigh, said the threshold for a public official to prevail on a libel case is “extraordinarily high.” She prefaced her comments by saying that she didn't have any knowledge about Moore’s situation.
“I can tell you that as a public official, Tim Moore would have to prove that the media organization published false and defamatory statements about him knowing that they were false and that they caused injury,” she said.
Libel cases by public officials, Martin said, are fairly rare because most public officials understand the high hurdles they face in such lawsuits and that they have access to other means of getting out their message. Martin added that it's “extraordinarily rare” for public official libel cases to go to trial. “Almost all are resolved on summary judgment, though certainly a handful are settled,” she said.
Moore said before any money was spent on the possible suit, he sought guidance from the State Board of Elections, which determined it was appropriate to use campaign funds for the libel case. “The context of the libel lawsuit that I’m considering has to do with my elected office,” he said.
Josh Lawson, general counsel to the State Board of Elections, confirmed Thursday that Kim Westbrook Strach, the State Board executive director, spoke with Moore in late 2015 about a possible libel suit and whether spending on that suit was an appropriate use of campaign funds.
“Campaign funds may be used to pay for legal services that result from an individual holding or pursuing public office,” Lawson wrote in an email on Thursday. Permissibility depends on whether the alleged facts arise out of activity associated with holding or pursuing public office, he added.
Moore’s House campaign raised $220,000 from March through June, leaving it with more than $1.1 million on hand as of June 30. The campaign spent $84,000 in those four months, meaning roughly a quarter of Moore's spending went to the law firm.