Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — At least five current and former state senators are helping former state Sen. Albin B. Swindell, a five-term Democrat from Nash County, fight a defamation lawsuit. Swindell, who lost his re-election bid in November to Republican Eldon “Buck” Newton of Wilson, set up a legal defense fund to defray legal expenses.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: See update below.]
As recently as Jan. 10, Swindell reported having $12,200 in the account. Donors include current Democratic state Sens. Don Vaughn, Josh Stein, Linda Garou, William Purcell and former President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. All gave $2,000, except Garrou, who donated the annual maximum $4,000.
Newton sued Swindell last September. The lawsuit contends Swindell lied in campaign mailings and radio ads by stating falsely that Newton was arrested on drug charges in the early 1990s.
“I have never, ever been arrested on a drug charge,” Newton said the day he filed the lawsuit. “I was not arrested in this affair or any other drug affair. I was not there. I never went to court. I never saw a police officer. I never got fingerprinted. I never got photographed.”
In court filings, Swindell disagrees. His answer to Newton’s lawsuit says court records as of August 2010 and a criminal background check show, “Newton was arrested on eight felony drug counts, including selling cocaine, and other statements about Newton’s arrest are true.”
The campaign mailings, paid for by the North Carolina Democratic Party, include pictures of lines of white powder, a razor blade, and an 8-ball. They also include statements like, “There’s nothing conservative about selling cocaine, Buck.” They also repeatedly say Newton was arrested on the charges.
Copies of the court records used as a source for the ads are attached to Swindell’s answer and were provided to Carolina Journal by the North Carolina Democratic Party. The documents include orders for arrest, indictments, and dismissals — all related to drug charges.
The documents do not, however, appear to show Newton ever was arrested, according to a criminal records expert who reviewed the records for CJ. Orders for Newton’s arrest were issued, but the court records do not indicate those orders were served.
Newton contends the charges were a case of mistaken identity and were dismissed. The dismissals are reflected in the campaign mailers.
UPDATE: After reviewing computer records, paper records, and a list of deceased inmates, the Watauga County Jail reported no record of Eldon Newton being held at the facility.
To win, Newton must prove that Swindell and the co-defendants knowingly lied about Newton’s record and published or broadcast false statements with reckless disregard for the truth. In his answer, Swindell maintains that the court records available when the ads were written show Newton was arrested.
In his complaint, Newton claims he tried to meet with Swindell or someone from his campaign to explain the court records, but Swindell refused such a meeting. In his answer, Swindell denies such a meeting was requested.
Swindell’s campaign finance reports show he paid the law firm Parker, Poe, Adams and Bernstein, LLP $38,262. The reports list the payment as legal expenses. The firm is representing Swindell in the defamation lawsuit.
The North Carolina Democratic Party is another defendant in the lawsuit. Swindell’s campaign finance reports show the Democratic Party gave Swindell in-kind contributions worth at least $114,520 for mailing services. The reports also show the North Carolina Senate Committee, an arm of the Democratic Party, gave Swindell $85,000 for mailers.
Swindell’s campaign expense reports also show he spent nearly $58,000 on radio. The money was paid to two companies that buy advertising on radio and television. The companies list as clients former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-2nd, current U.S. Reps. Mike McIntyre, D-7th, and Heath Shuler, D-11th, and Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton.
The State Board of Elections also fined Swindell’s campaign. The board said he failed to report donations in a timely manner from Nationwide Carolina Political Participation Fund, Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants PAC, N.C. Restaurant Association PAC, D. Steven White, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The donations were made shortly before last year’s primary.
Anthony Greco is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.