The Hague Verdict: Update and Clarification

By Erica C. Barnett September 3, 2009

As we broke in Morning Fizz this morning, a jury ruled this week that King County Council member Jane Hague made false and defamatory statements against a supporter of Richard Pope, her opponent in the 2007 election.

However, although the jury did determine that Hague had defamed the supporter, Paul Brecht, it did not rule that she had made the false statements actual malice or "reckless disregard" for the truth, and so did not require her to pay compensation. Brecht had to meet a higher-than-usual standard to prove defamation because he was determined to be a "public figure" for the purposes of the campaign—in part because, as a 2008 deposition makes clear, he frequently defended Pope in the comments on political web sites and was interviewed about the campaign on KING5 and KUOW.

In a  mailer that went out to between 25,000 and 50,000 voters immediately before the 2007 general election, Hague claimed that Brecht "tops law enforcement's list with multiple domestic violence arrests and at least one assault conviction." The claim was a reference to an earlier mailer by Pope, which said Brecht "tops Pope's endorsement list." The lawsuit noted that Brecht "has never been convicted of assault," and added that he "is also not on the top of any 'law enforcement list' of any sort for any reason. This false claim is especially defamatory in the context that Defendant Hague is making false allegations of an assault conviction against Plantiff in the very same sentence."

Brecht was charged with fourth-degree domestic assault against his then-wife, which resulted in a no-contact order. The charges were later dismissed. However, he was convicted of breaking the no-contact order for calling his wife, and later meeting her at a shopping center. Hague’s team felt justified in alleging an assault conviction, according to the Seattle Times, because the Renton police report on Brecht’s violation of the no-contact order was classified “under a ‘crime code’ of simple assault.”

Hague's attorney, Scott Ellerby, calls the question of whether Hague's claim was false "a technical question," and says the real issue was whether Hague made the false statement intentionally and with malice and "reckless disregard" for the truth. "The plaintiff had the burden of proof on all those issues," Ellerby says. He says there was ample evidence that Brecht had been charged with assault, and that Brecht produced no evidence demonstrating that he "was or wasn't on the top of any law enforcement list."

However, a juror in the Hague trial—who did not want to be identified by name—told me that the jurors had "wanted to" find Hague guilty of reckless disregard, but that they all agreed the mailer didn't meet that standard. "We felt pretty bad about it, but we couldn't say it was reckless disregard," the juror says.

The juror notes that Hague spent nearly $430,000 to defeat Pope despite the fact that he was a long-shot fringe candidate who had unsuccessfully run for office nine times before and had only seven contributors. "The question was asked, 'If this guy's such a loser, why did you spend so much money against him? They couldn't really answer that question."

Hague falsely claimed to have a bachelor of science degree, received an $8,000 fine for violating state campaign finance laws, and was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in 2007. During the latter incident, Hague reported mouthed off to the arresting officers, telling them, "This is fucking ridiculous. Don't you have rapists to take off the street?”

Brecht's attorney, Eugene Bolin, has not returned a call for comment.

Jake Blumgart contributed research to this report.

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