California

Devin Nunes’ lawsuits put spotlight on his attorney’s suspension, GOP defamation lawsuits

When Rep. Devin Nunes appeared on Fox News to announce his defamation lawsuit against Twitter and a parody account, “Devin Nunes’ cow,” he declared the legal filing would be the first of many.

He followed through with another lawsuit this week against McClatchy, parent company of The Fresno Bee.

Both lawsuits were filed by an attorney based in Charlottesville, Virginia, a solo-practitioner named Steven S. Biss who is making a name for himself suing media organizations for defamation.

With the Nunes lawsuits, Biss has thrust himself into the national spotlight and, like his client, opened himself up to criticism on Twitter and elsewhere.

The attention exposed a factual error in Biss’ initial filing against McClatchy. It also drove social media discussion this week about a similar case he filed that was dismissed without a judgment and his year-long suspension from practicing law a decade ago.

Biss, a graduate of University of Richmond School of Law, did not return a call requesting comment.

Nunes announced the lawsuit seeking $150 million from McClatchy on Monday night. It accuses the publisher and Republican political strategist Liz Mair of defamation and conspiracy against Nunes, citing stories by The Fresno Bee and McClatchy. The stories detailed Nunes’ investment in a winery that had been sued over a yacht party that allegedly included underage sex workers and cocaine, and Nunes’ use of Political Action Committee money to buy tickets to Celtics games.

Less than a day after filing, the lawsuit against McClatchy appeared to be amended Tuesday due to a factual inaccuracy that Biss was lambasted for online.

In the original version of the lawsuit, Nunes and Biss accuse a Fresno Bee reporter of emphasizing the words “woman,” “Devin,” and “cocaine” with a bold font in a tweet about the story on the winery lawsuit. While a screenshot of the tweet in the original lawsuit showed the words in bold font, the original tweet has text only in plain font.

Law blogs called it an “embarrassing mistake over how Twitter works,” and Twitter users started pointing out the discrepancy, noting that when users search certain words on Twitter the resulting tweets show the words searched for in bold.

A new version of the lawsuit called “amended complaint” has been posted by Fox News, which no longer mentions a reporter bolding certain words in a tweet. Fox News explains that “Nunes’ team dropped the claim” in the amended complaint.

McClatchy has not been served with the complaint. The online docket at Virginia’s Albemarle Circuit Court shows that Nunes has filed a motion to submit an amended complaint.

McClatchy in a statement released Tuesday says it considers the lawsuit to be a “baseless attack on local journalism and a free press.”

California-based First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder said Biss’ demands for damages running into the millions of dollars appeared to be an “attention-grabbing tactic.”

In June, Biss filed a defamation suit on behalf of investor Ed Butowsky of Plano, Texas against NPR for $57 million in damages. NPR reported on a federal lawsuit that alleged Butowsky worked with the White House to influence a retracted Fox News report on conspiracy theories about murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Butowsky’s suit in the Eastern District Court of Texas has not been resolved.

In his complaint, Butowsky alleges that NPR’s reporting was intentionally biased against him. NPR in statements on the lawsuits has said it stands by its reporting.

Biss “files a lot of defamation cases and a lot of his clients tend to be Republican, or right-leaning,” said Lee Berlik, a Virginia defamation attorney who said he doesn’t know Biss personally. Defamation and libel are identical charges under Virginia law, Berlik said.

In 2017, a Virginia judge threw out a defamation lawsuit filed by Biss on behalf of Hanover County Supervisor Sean Davis against Style Weekly.

The Virginia weekly’s article reported complaints that Davis had teachers at Hanover High School suspended or disciplined “if they present ideas or images that Davis considers too liberal.” The article quoted students, parents and social media posts expressing concern about censorship at the school.

In his lawsuit, filed in Hanover Circuit Court, Davis alleged the articles included false statements that were intended to harm his reputation.

The circuit court judge, Micheal Levy, told Biss’ client he was subjected to heightened scrutiny as a public official.

“You’re required to have a thicker skin,” Levy said of public officials, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch in August 2017.

Years before that, Biss was suspended from practicing law by the Virginia State Bar starting in January 2009. The suspension lasted a year.

Biss had agreed to hold shares of a company in escrow that a Hong Kong client had promised to buy, according to an order by a panel of judges, and instead violated federal securities laws by giving the shares to his client without payment.

A judicial panel investigating Biss in 2008 said he “orchestrated a cashless takeover” of a company. The panel wrote that Biss “demonstrated a lack of competence” in pursuing transactions that he should have known were criminal or fraudulent.

Biss testified he “had no clue” that his client had planned to pay for the shares with Chinese real estate instead of cash, and was only made aware of that issue after the fact, according to his suspension.

A year later, Biss received a 30-day suspension when the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board found that he violated the terms of his previous sanction by representing clients in 2009.

Biss was also publicly reprimanded by the Virginia State Bar in 2010 for violating conflict of interest rules in connection with a former client. He is currently a lawyer in good standing, according to Virginia State Bar records.

Follow more of our reporting on U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes

See all 9 stories
Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
  Comments