The Real Deal New York

City Council loser accuses Jobs for New York of libel

REBNY-backed PAC has come under fire for attack ads, spending
By Guelda Voien | September 30, 2013 04:14PM

Some of the recent City Council primaries turned vicious, often fueled by the attack ads paid for by the political action committee Jobs for New York, which is backed by the influential Real Estate Board of New York. Now, at least one candidate is pushing back in court.

Lisa Giovinazzo, an attorney who lost the Republican primary for Staten Island’s 50th district, filed suit last month claiming Jobs for New York printed “blatantly false and misleading statements, deliberately and intentionally.” In an amendment dated Aug. 30, the plaintiff also named Phil Singer, a political strategist for Marathon Strategies and spokesperson for the PAC, as a defendant, following his comments in a newspaper article.

The suit, filed Aug. 23 in New York State Supreme Court, is “completely meritless,” said Rich Jacobsen, an attorney at law firm Orrick, who represents both Jobs for New York and Singer. “If she continues to proceed with her suit, my clients will defend it vigorously.”

Singer, a media consultant who counts such figures as Hillary Clinton among his clients, and REBNY referred The Real Deal to Jacobsen for comment. Jacobsen declined to comment further. A call to Giovinazzo’s attorney, Richard Katz, was not returned.

Giovinazzo lost the Republican primary to Jobs for New York-backed Steven Matteo on Sept. 10; the PAC plowed $34,219 in independent expenditures into negative mailings and other literature against her, according to filings with the city’s campaign finance board. One such item was a mailing Jobs for New York sent to thousands of residents that claimed Giovinazzo wanted to lower the drinking age to 17.

This comes as the PAC’s expenditures — which totaled $6.94 million, as of today — have turned into one of the most discussed facets of the ongoing City Council races. (Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission, the government cannot restrict independent expenditures by PACs, as long as they are not formally affiliated with a campaign.) In fact, many Jobs for New York-backed candidates, such as Laurie Cumbo in the 35th district in Brooklyn and Margaret Chin in the first district in Lower Manhattan, railed against the group’s influence in the primaries, although both candidates won the Democratic nomination in their respective districts.

“Now I have become a target for something I have no control over,” Cumbo said of the PAC’s support, to DNAinfo last month. “Their so-called support of my campaign has done more harm than good [for me] in the community.”

The flier distributed to oppose Giovinazzo and paid for by Jobs for New York read “teens and alcohol don’t mix,” over a shot of a car crash. On the other side it read, “So why does Lisa Giovinazzo want to lower the drinking age to 17?”

The flier attributed the statement to rcteapartypatriots.com, the website of Richmond County Tea Party Patriots, a splinter Tea Party group. However, no mention of Giovinazzo discussing the drinking age was present on their site at press time.

Instead, the apparent sentiment may come from a post on the website of another conservative organization, American Grizzlies United, written by Grizzlies state coordinator Ron Devito, who “liveblogged” a forum the RCTPP held to vet Giovinazzo, according to the Staten Island Advance, which first reported the lawsuit.

“[Giovinazzo] said she does not understand the logic that permits a 17-year-old to go to war and potentially die for his country, but not drink alcohol or buy cigarettes,” Devito wrote. The account summarized Giovinazzo’s answer to a question about a proposal to raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases to 21 from 19.

Giovinazzo told The Real Deal that the Jobs for New York flier misconstrued her remarks to mean that she advocated lowering the drinking age.

Indeed, even Devito said that this was not what Giovinazzo meant.

“She was accused of saying the drinking age should be lower — she never said that,” Devito told TRD. “She was not saying the drinking age should be dropped,” when she made the analogy, he said.

Devito’s similar statements in the original Advance article were what prompted Jobs for New York spokesperson Singer to retort that “Giovinazzo clearly stated that she believes 17-year-olds should be able to drink alcohol legally. That isn’t the type of leadership we need in the City Council.” It was this quote that led Giovinazzo to amend the suit.

Giovinazzo called the mailers “a complete lie,” and said she would “never fathom” a lower drinking age.

“I’m a mom; I have two sons,” she told The Real Deal. “That would be like putting a beer and the keys in their hands.”

Jobs for New York has yet to respond to the suit, she said, adding that she believed they hoped to delay proceedings until after the general election on Nov. 5. Orrick’s Jacobsen declined to comment on that accusation.

Libel suits, especially those involving speech about a public figure, are extremely difficult to prove, said Andrew Miltenberg, a partner with Nesenoff & Miltenberg and a specialist in libel law. “There is an extremely high standard — actual malice or gross negligence.”

And while some might easily characterize the misinterpretation of Giovinazzo’s statements as malicious, in the nasty milieu of a political campaign, it may not meet the definition, Miltenberg said.

“In the political arena I think the courts have come to…understand that the American public has … an expectation of hyperbole,” he said.

But even if the case cannot meet the high standard for legal libel, it has punctured Giovinazzo’s political career profoundly, Miltenberg noted.

“On the other hand there is an exponential damage. You cannot quantify it, in the same way that you can in another lawsuit, the type of damage that this does,” he said.

Giovinazzo also recently resigned as vice chairman of the Staten Island Republican Party, the third official to leave the party in the wake of the bitter race, following party chairman Robert Scamardella and vice chair Frank Aversa. She told the Advance that she felt the party “no longer welcomed all Republicans.”

Giovinazzo was not alone in her outrage against Jobs for New York’s actions. Earlier this month, a mother whose son was killed by a drunk driver reportedly demanded an apology from the group and Matteo.

“I know firsthand the devastation and grief caused by drinking and driving,” she told the Advance. “I resent those who exploit grief,” for political purposes.