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Gregory’s Web – May 28, 2023

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Ron Gregory political columnist

Do citizens have a right to expect the truth in election coverage?

My guess is that an overwhelming number of our readers and listeners would respond with a resounding, “yes!”

But apparently, that’s not how the courts see it. At least they don’t see it that way if the untruths damage former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship.

Pardon me for asking but how can courts ignore Fox News and others branding Blankenship as “a felon” or “a convicted felon” when he is not and never has been?

When they did it, the ex-CEO was very much a contender for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination to meet Democrat incumbent Joe Manchin five years ago.

Let the record here be clear; when they labeled Blankenship “a felon” he had NEVER been convicted of a felony. He still has NEVER been.

Yet Blankenship contends that a conspiracy involving big-time politicos was developed to discredit him and the truth be damned. That included labeling Blankenship as a “felon” even though he was not, never was and never still isn’t.

After losing a defamation case he brought in the federal Fourth Circuit Court, Blankenship is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review that finding.

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Blankenship’s legal team filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari. The case, docketed May 18, involves the 2018 West Virginia Republican primary when Blankenship was a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

“The underlying lawsuit concerned weaponized defamation that derailed Mr. Blankenship’s candidacy,” Blankenship’s legal team said in a press release according to The West Virginia Record. 

“The defamation of Mr. Blankenship began two weeks before the election on April 25, 2018, when Fox News legal expert Judge Andrew Napolitano … falsely reported that Mr. Blankenship ‘went to prison for manslaughter.’”

They went on, “Mr. Blankenship has never been charged or convicted of manslaughter. Fox News refused numerous requests by Judge Napolitano to timely correct the record before the primary election even after Mr. Blankenship threatened litigation.”

That was a fascinating race to cover. Blankenship was closing fast on frontrunner, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. In fact, as the weekend before the primary approached, a legitimate poll showed Blankenship had taken the lead over Morrisey and former legislator and future supreme court justice and Congressman Evan Jenkins.

Morrisey abruptly called a final Sunday press conference hurling accusations at Blankenship’s campaign and subtly inferring that, as Attorney General, he had the inside scoop on Blankenship lawbreaking.

In fact, the presser was initially planned in front of Charleston’s federal building to give even more credence to the impression Blankenship was in serious legal trouble. Rain forced it to a Capitol Street building.

Courts traditionally rely heavily on the standard that it’s almost impossible to defame a public figure. So the former CEO is asking the top court for help since he believes he was irreparably harmed.

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According to The Record. “(t)he questions presented in Blankenship’s petition are whether the actual malice standard imposed on public figure plaintiffs in defamation cases should be replaced and whether the framework for summary judgment in public figure defamation cases should be reformed.”

In other words, is it okay for a news organization to boldly lie about a candidate to destroy his or her candidacy and then claim the public figure defense?

When the primary was held, Morrisey captured 35% of the GOP vote to 30% for Jenkins and 20% for Blankenship.

The petition says the respondents in the cases (Fox News and 15 other media outlets) derailed his candidacy by falsely saying he was a “convicted felon.”

It maintains, “The damage was irreparable. No person convicted of a felony has ever been elected to the United States Senate.”

Get that. NONE. Blankenship was politically doomed.

In truth, Blankenship was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards. The jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and not guilty of making false statements after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in Raleigh County that left 29 miners dead in 2010. Both of those charges were felonies. He was not convicted of either of those allegations.

Any reputable media outlet knew he was acquitted of all but the misdemeanor. And my experience tells me voters make a big difference between a felony conviction and a misdemeanor when they decide who to vote for.

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The respondents in the Supreme Court proceeding are NBCUniversal, CNBC, Fox News Network, Cable News Network, MSNBC Cable, WP Company, WP Company d/b/a The Washington Post, Mediaite, FiscalNote d/b/a Roll Call, News and Guts, HD Media Company d/b/a The Charleston Gazette-Mail, American Broadcasting Companies, Tamar Auber, Griffin Connolly, Eli Lehrer Iand Boston Globe Media Partners d/b/a The Boston Globe.

In February, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claim brought by Blankenship accusing the outlets of defamation when they mislabeled him a “felon” following his misdemeanor conviction. The district court granted summary judgment to all 16 defendants after ruling they didn’t make the statements with actual malice.

Then what, pray tell, did they do it for? It sure wasn’t to help Blankenship win a Senate seat.

“Some of the statements may have been the product of carelessness and substandard journalistic methods,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the Fourth Circuit. 

So, I guess the outlets needed to admit they wanted Blankenship to lose – and that probably wouldn’t have been sufficient. Using “substandard journalistic methods” somehow absolves them?

The effort to defeat Blankenship reached all the way to President Donald Trump, the petition claims.

So the next time you suspect your news channel is lying, you may just be watching a “substandard” reporter.

Let’s hope the Supreme Court fixes this mess. Don Blankenship deserved better – and so did the voters.

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* * * * * *

Overreach by various government entities can be bad news as well.

In the already-heated Republican Attorney General campaign, former U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart has previously staked out the claim that he’s a “true conservative” and his opponent, Brooke County State Senator Ryan Weld is not.

In measuring that title, I will concede that Stuart is more what I identify as “ultra-conservative” than Weld.

But it is Stuart who has proposed expanding the power of the AG office to include criminal investigation and prosecution.

Weld told the West Virginia Record he opposes such a change, calling it “a dangerous weaponization of state government.”

Stuart said in a campaign press release. “It is time for the West Virginia Legislature to reasonably expand the authority of the Attorney General to include criminal investigation and prosecution.”

In his first term as a Kanawha County Senator, Stuart leans on his experience as a former U.S. Attorney. 

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In announcing his candidacy for AG, he urged voters to “look at the record” of other candidates.

“If their record is RINO (Republican In Name Only), then they’re RINOs, ” he said, inferring that Weld is not a true conservative.

But is expanding governmental reach by authorizing the Attorney General’s office to investigate crimes and convene grand juries really solidly conservative Republican?

I thought conservatives believed in less government, not more. As Weld rightly pointed out, the AG’s office is already authorized to assist local county prosecutors.

West Virginia is one of 11 states that provides no original criminal authority to the office.

“Local prosecutors do a great job in West Virginia but often with too few resources, too few prosecutors, and little to no multi-county, regional, or statewide strategic coordination,” Stuart said. “An Attorney General with the authority to initiate and coordinate criminal investigations and prosecutions would significantly strengthen public safety and government accountability statewide.”

Weld called Stuart’s proposal “a dangerous weaponization of state government. Being a former county prosecutor, I know just how hard our elected prosecutors, their assistant prosecutors, and local law enforcement all work to keep our communities safe.”

Weld added, “Local government control and reducing our bureaucracy always have been priorities for me as a legislator – this does the opposite.”

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There are sure to be plenty more dust-ups between these candidates between now and May 2024.

But on this issue, I think Weld is taking the true conservative position.

Stuart and Weld are the only candidates who have announced plans to run for the office. 

Former Charleston mayor candidate, JB Akers, is considering entering the GOP field. Current Republican AG Morrisey plans to run for governor in 2024.

* * * * * *

Is it really possible that Republican Congresswoman Carol Miller is so out of step with her constituents that she believes it would be a mistake to endorse former President Donald Trump for President, 2024?

Miller, being challenged by former Delegate Derrick Evans in the House district primary, heard her opponent give Trump his unqualified endorsement on radio’s Tom Roten Morning Show.

But Miller danced around the issue on the same program, finally essentially saying she wants to see who all runs before deciding on her favorite.

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Suffice it to say voters in her district don’t have to learn who’s running to know they’re for Trump.

Polls say at least the same 70% that voted for him in 2020 will do it again.

Evans has been given little chance in his contest with Miller. He’ll stand a shot if she decides to badmouth Trump.

If Trump was, unlikely as it is, to endorse Evans, Miller might find herself with a real race on her hands.

* * * * * *

Robbie Morris, Randolph County Economic Development Authority executive director and chairman of the Corridor H Highway Authority has announced that he will run for State Senate in the 2024 Republican primary. 

He was named one of West Virginia Executive Magazine’s “Young Guns” a few years ago and will be a formidable candidate.

His candidacy will potentially pit him against incumbent GOP Senator Robert Karnes, also of Randolph County.

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This may well be another example of Senate President Craig Blair’s powerful presence in a Republican intraparty scrap.

It’s widely believed that Blair recruited Delegate Paul Espinosa to challenge another GOP incumbent, Senator Patricia Rucker.

Neither Karnes nor Rucker was expected to support a Blair bid to remain Senate President. Thus, Blair likely enticed Espinosa and Morris with promises of campaign help.

Blair unceremoniously removed Rucker as Education chair and replaced her with Mason County Senator Amy Grady a few months ago.

At that time, Blair let it be known he was unhappy with Rucker’s conduct of her committee.

Karnes is well known for his outspoken representation. Most recently, he has battled with Blair, accusing the Senate President of padding his expense accounts to receive annual pay of about $100,000 for a job that is listed at $20,000.

In a legislative body that thrives on the “team” approach, Karnes will never put camaraderie ahead of principles.

With the positions we already know will be contested – from Governor on down – this may be the most exciting Republican primary ever.

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It will surely be even better than 1968 when First District Congressman Arch A. Moore, Jr. defeated former Governor Cecil Underwood.

And who can forget a  third GOP candidate that year: Peter D. Beter? He was our unintended comic relief.

* * * * * *

Meanwhile, Blair might be better served to concentrate on his own re-election instead of recruiting candidates who will vote for him for President.

He won’t be president if he’s voted out of the Senate by the folks back home.

* * * * * *

Joe Earley, a congressional candidate in the Second District, features photos of him with First District candidate Derrick Evans on social media.

Earley claims support from the Citizens Defense League, which is enough to lose me.

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Second District incumbent Republican Alex Mooney is running for U.S. Senate. The First District incumbent is Republican Carol Miller.

* * * * * *

Fascinating indeed is our story of clients of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s wife’s lobbying firm.

Anti-gun and pro-abortion are not exactly Morrisey themes for the 2024 Republican governor’s race.

Folks in Greenbrier County, where Denise Morrisey lives, have some not-too-flattering stories about her as well. She has seldom been seen in Charleston.

That begs the question: if her husband wins, will she live in the Mansion? Right now, she lists her residence as White Sulphur Springs while he lives in Harpers Ferry.

Contact Ron Gregory at 304-533-5185; ron.gregory@wvstatewide.com; or PO Box 20297, Charleston, WV 25362. Anonymity guaranteed.

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  • Staff Writer

    From the WV Statewide News Team. Articles depicting “Staff Writer” indicate the content was prepared by several members of the news team.

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