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Neither side remains spotless in the GOP-Dems dirt-clod fight

There Will Be Mud

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When a pollster for the Mitt Romney campaign told reporters in August that Team Romney wouldn't let its campaign "be dictated by fact-checkers," he may have unwittingly defined our new politics.

This isn't the year politicians and those in their service started stretching the facts, or disregarding them altogether — to be sure, they've done that since the first caveman hired the first PR hunter-gatherer. But in an ironic parallel to the rise of the fact-checker, campaigns recently have been going all-in with increasing frequency, betting that the damage they can inflict on an opponent by releasing a falsehood into the political atmosphere will be greater than whatever backlash might result.

With a month still to go in this silly political season, Tennessee political observers have witnessed a bipartisan embrace of this cynical gambit. Two recent examples feature lies — or at the very least, a willful ignorance of nuance — in just about equal parts.

The first item hit inboxes at the Scene almost two weeks ago by way of Carol Andrews, campaign manager for Democratic state Senate candidate Brad Thompson in West Tennessee's 24th District. Andrews breathlessly declared in a press release that Thompson's Republican opponent, John Stevens, "cannot be trusted." Citing "official court documents" contained within the release, Andrews alleged that Stevens had "admitted to an unethical and unlawful act involving interference with the wishes of a dying woman's last wishes [sic] to leave her estate to sick and troubled children."

Andrews, the former communications director for Harold Ford Jr., claimed that in 2009 Stevens lied to a nurse by claiming he was Ruth Karas' attorney, in a ploy to gain access to Karas' bedside and tear up her will as she lay dying and in a coma. In a resulting lawsuit, the nurse who interacted with Stevens that day, Amy Naylor, testified that Stevens asked her to videotape him tearing up the will, which left portions of Karas' estate to St. Jude's Children Hospital and Youth Town of Tennessee.

Karas died the following day. St. Jude and Youth Town later filed suit and, according to Andrews' release, "received most of the estate to which they were entitled." According to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, a judge ruled Stevens' "spoliation" of the will was improper, and thus it had not been revoked. The details of the settlement, however, remain confidential.

Yet despite Andrews' repeated and unequivocal statements that Stevens had admitted to committing an unlawful act, he had not done so. Stevens was not a party in the lawsuit over Karas' estate, but he did sign an affidavit regarding some of the events in question. That affidavit, however, simply acknowledges that Stevens was indeed in Karas' room on that date; that Karas was unconscious and did not now know he was there; and that Stevens knew as much. However queasy voters might feel about the image of Stevens tearing up Karas' will while she lay in a coma, he did not admit to a felony, as Andrews claimed.

According to Stevens, that's because he was Karas' attorney at that time. He told the Scene that he had been hired personally by Karas several days earlier and that his actions on the day before her death were "according to her wishes, and her wishes alone." He went on to say that it "speaks volumes" that he has not been charged criminally, and that no ethics complaints regarding the matter were ever filed. The attorney said he didn't lie to get into Karas' room, and that in fact he told Naylor just what he was there to do.

The day after Andrews released her allegations, the story surfaced, pushed this time by the state Democratic Party, with a link to the only media outlet in the state that had picked up the story at the time. That outlet was a radio station in Martin, which appeared to have simply copied and pasted most of Andrews' release, making it appear as if it were full of facts being reported by the station.

When asked about the various holes in the story, which neither he nor the party had vetted before the email blast, TNDP spokesman Brandon Puttbrese simply referred the Scene back to Andrews. The party would not acknowledge the story publicly until it was picked up by the Commercial-Appeal.

The Scene showed Andrews' release, and the documents within it, to an attorney who agreed to review them. The response was simple: "This is chumpbait," the attorney said, drawing special attention to the fact that few people ask an eyewitness to videotape them committing a felony.

Furthermore, when finally reached by phone, Walton West, whom Andrews claims was serving as Karas' attorney at the time Stevens tore up her will, told the Scene that he had indeed executed Karas' initial will — in 2002 and 2003, according to Andrews. Contrary to Andrews' claims, though, he said he had no further contact with her after that point and was not continuing to serve as her attorney.

In what would seem to be a tacit concession, subsequent statements from Andrews have focused on Stevens tearing up the will, not the demonstrably false claim that he admitted to committing a felony. The TNDP, however, has since paid for a website at JohnStevensFacts.org, which still falsely claims that Stevens admitted to tearing up Karas' will without her permission.

A more recent case reversed the roles, this time with the Tennessee Republican Party attempting to bend reality to fit an attack on a Democratic candidate. While the substance of the two incidents is vastly different, each demonstrates the same blatant rejection of easily ascertained facts.

The TNGOP strategy was slightly different. Instead of privately leaking details to the press, in hope that media coverage would grant them credibility, the Republican Party released a blaring press release last week sounding the alarm that Democrats appeared to be signaling support for a state income tax. What's more, they claimed to have audiotape to prove it.

That audiotape, which was released along with worried statements from Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chris Devaney about the appearance of the Democrats' "radical legislative agenda," features remarks from House District 25 candidate Flo Matheson. As stated in the release — which did not identify Matheson by name — Matheson can indeed be heard on the tape expressing support for a living wage, and opposition to the repeal of the estate tax. Suspiciously, though, her comments about an income tax begin with just 10 seconds left on the tape, and are quickly cut off in the middle of a sentence.

"Also, I support a progressive income tax, which would mean, you know, more taxes on the wealthy. I do know that fe... ," she can be heard saying to the audience at a candidates forum, before the tape ends.

According to her prepared remarks, which Matheson provided in full, she went on to say that "federal income tax is not an issue that state representatives can resolve" but that she encouraged voters to "remove legislators who work for the greedy super-rich, not for the middle class."

Told of the release, and the way it characterized her views on a state income tax — which is arguably banned by the state constitution and has become a political hand grenade that no sane politician would toss on the campaign trail — Matheson expressed shock. Asked for the record if she supported the implementation of a state income tax, her answer came fast.

"Of course not," she said. "Nobody does."

Her opponent, incumbent Rep. Cameron Sexton, said he had left the forum with the understanding that Matheson supported a state income tax and that when he challenged her on that point later in the forum, she hadn't denied it. Matheson told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that she didn't recall any such comments from Sexton.

TNGOP executive director Adam Nickas said the party had not cut or edited "in any way" the audiotape that they were given. He would not reveal where the tape came from. Astonishingly, he argued that the tape — which cuts Matheson off mid-sentence — provided enough context.

"I think it's pretty clear that she was talking about state issues," he said. "I know that she and probably the Democrat party are probably in damage control mode right now, trying to spin it, but I think it's pretty simple what she said."

Despite a clear response from Matheson that she does not support a state income tax, and no indication that the state Democratic Party even says the words "income tax" these days, the TNGOP has refused to back down from their original stance: that they were simply asking the question, even if the source of their supposed curiosity was of their own making.

On either side, evidently, where there's a will, there's a way to tear it up.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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