Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mary Beth Buchanan Comes Out Firing On Marty Griffin Show, But Neglects To Aim

Mary Beth Buchanan appears (or, more accurate, sounds) to be no better a candidate for Congress than she was a prosecutor. She launched her campaign this morning by visiting Marty Griffin's KDKA radio show without an appointment, exhibiting an understanding of defamation law as lacking as her self-preservation instinct.

Buchanan called Griffin shortly after hearing Dr. Cyril Wecht criticize Buchanan's failed prosecution of Dr. Wecht. Objecting to Dr. Wecht's appraisal of the cost to taxpayers of that misadventure -- while offering similarly unsubstantiated figures and strenuously resisting invitations to quantify that cost in detail because there is "no price tag you can put on justice" -- Buchanan engaged in an awkward and contentious ("I am trying to answer your question, if you would shut up") exchange highlighted by her threat to sue Griffin for defamation.

The basis for the threat: Griffin's restatement of Wecht's estimate that the fruitless, five-year full-court press against Wecht cost taxpayers $20 million.

Buchanan's defamation claim is destined to go nowhere because American law, to promote debate, stacks the deck against defamation claims -- unless the allegedly defamatory statement falls within one of four special categories. It is easier to hold a speaker accountable in a case that involves (1) a claim of contagious or loathsome disease, (2) an imputation of unfitness for a relevant profession or business, (3) a charge of impotence or lack of chastity or (4) an accusation of criminal conduct not supported by a conviction.

The fourth point makes Buchanan's mention of defamation suprising, because it evokes her notorious -- and questionable -- assertion, in the wake of the dismissal of all charges against Wecht, that she nonetheless considered the former coroner guilty as formerly charged.

Buchanan therefore is pointing indignantly to the cookie jar, forgetting that her other hand is still in it.

One of Buchanan's first acts as United States attorney was to hire a full-time mouthpiece. Some questioned the necessity (and expense) of that move at the time, but Buchanan's first press release and radio interview as a candidate demonstrate that when she insisted on a chaperone, she knew what she was doing.


Anonymous said...

Griffin is great, particularly if you enjoy the sound of kid gloves brushing up against a microphone.

Anonymous said...

Looks like a great representative that will listen to the people. There is truly no better way to listen to others and hold a dialogue then threatening them with lawsuits, telling them to shut up, and then stating that they don't matter.

...and this was Day 1 of the campaign

Bram Reichbaum said...

I'd only like to correct that Buchanan didn't threaten to sue Griffin for defamation. She identified / characterized what Wecht and he were doing as defimation.

One can think of defamation as a little like corruption (see the Acklin e-mails). Regretably, it's not always either illegal or prosecutable. But you know it when you see it.

Chris Potter said...

"I'd only like to correct that Buchanan didn't threaten to sue Griffin for defamation. She identified / characterized what Wecht and he were doing as defimation."

I don't really have a dog in this fight. But here's what Buchanan said:

"We still have defamation laws in this country, and to the extent that you keep repeating things that are flat-out wrong, you're running afoul."

Did Buchanan say "I'm going to sue you if you keep this up?" No. But if Yarone Zober had posted this assertion at That's Church, say, how would you have interpreted it? Would you see it as a useful primer on libel/slander laws for people interested in jurisprudence? Or as something a bit more sinister?

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that Buchanan's remarks are a bit murky. Griffin gave Buchanan multiple opportunities to say that she WASN'T threatening him with a lawsuit. (E.g. "This is how you're going to run, telling people to shut up and threatening them with lawsuits?") She could have cleared the matter up within a few moments, had she wanted.

She chose not to do that. And from what I can tell, her campaign did nothing to walk back the threat in a subsequent Post-Gazette story either.

Taken all in all, this looks like a very clumsy shot across the bow to me. Not a great way to introduce yourself to the voters. Buchanan should just be grateful a bunch of smart-alecky social-mediators haven't started a #Buchananrumors hashtag.

Bram Reichbaum said...

@Potter: Clearly there is some gray to that area. However one could also argue that as a career attorney, she's simply more prone to using words like "defamation" and "afoul" more often than the average person, who would just say, that's "wrong" or "a lie". And even if she did *suggest* the possibility of litigation, that's a far cry from what Ravenstahl did in making the threat explicit, and from doing QUITE what a literal interpretation of Infinonymous wrote would suggest.

"Not a great way to introduce yourself to the voters."

That is entirely a matter of conjecture.

Chris Potter said...

So your argument is that because Mary Beth Buchanan is a career attorney, with years of experience as the top law-enforcement officer in the region, the person whose legal judgment we were asked to trust for the better part of a decade ... she's naturally going to use legal phrases more LOOSELY than the rest of us? Plus, it's not like she used a legal term in a non-legal context ("I'm sick of Cyril Wecht's vile slander," for example. Or "Marty, you're just murdering the facts here!") She specifically cited the existence of laws on the books.

But let's not belabor the point, especially when you and I are the only ones who still care. We probably both agree that Buchanan didn't explicitly threaten to sue anyone, and that she was somewhat more artful than Mayor Ravenstahl. (Setting the bar low, I realize.) But we probably also agree, I hope, that reasonable people could interpret her remarks as being a form of veiled threat.

Which brings me back to the earlier point. I'd never accuse Griffin of being a reasonable person, but he clearly DID interpret her remarks that way. And he gave her at least two chances to reject that interpretation, by asking her whether she intended to sue. In neither case did Buchanan deny that's what she meant. It would have been easy to do so: "I'm not going to sue you, Marty. I'm just pointing out that the law says truth should mean something -- even in a political campaign."

Ordinarily, trying to make hay out of the fact that "Buchanan didn't deny it!" would be a "when did you stop beating your wife" tactic. But in this case, Buchanan herself opened the door. I mean, it's not like she was ambushed: She's the one who called in. And she's the one who decided to toss around references to defamation law.

Bram Reichbaum said...

We're not disagreeing on very much here, Chris, except possibly on how important or interesting the episode was, and what it means if anything.

When you write "LOOSELY", I'd use the term "readily".

When you talk about "making hay" and "opening the door", I'm like, hay of and the door to what? Challenger gives a talk show host the business, draws a line on an out-of-control issue, and generates some early excitement. There is at least as much an encouraging narrative to be taken from this as a troubling one -- unless of course a judgment's been made that "troubling" is what the people truly want to hear.

Infinonymous said...

Could we slice this baby down the middle? Mrs. Buchanan did not declare an unqualified intention to file a complaint, but she used the threat of litigation as a tactic designed to warn Griffin (and others) away from debating points she dislikes. Poor form, by any construction.

Some might be tempted to infer that the use of "baby" was intended to evoke "juvenile" or "tantrum" or other jabs at the not-ready-for-prime-time campaign launch.

And they would be correct.