Former legislative candidate’s lawsuit against state GOP moves forward without Ricketts

Palmtag’s attorneys drop request to question governor about alleged defamatory mailers

By: - January 25, 2022 4:30 am
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts will not be required, at least for now, to provide a deposition in a lawsuit alleging that the Nebraska Republican Party defamed a GOP candidate for the Legislature.

Attorneys for Janet Palmtag, a Nebraska City business owner who was defeated by State Sen. Julie Slama in a 2020 race, have alleged that defamatory campaign mailers attacking Palmtag were sent “at the direction” of the governor, a claim rejected by the State Republican Party.

Janet Palmtag of Nebraska City (Courtesy of Palmtag For Nebraska)

After a flurry of legal motions were filed earlier this month, Palmtag’s attorneys dropped a request to question the governor, though they said they might pursue a deposition later. 

The Palmtag-Slama race, to represent southeast Nebraska’s District 1, was contentious and expensive, spiced by charges of dirty campaigning from both sides. It also pitted a candidate backed by former Gov. Dave Heineman – Palmtag – against a favorite of Ricketts’ – Slama.

Slama, who at the time was a law student at the University of Nebraska, was appointed by Ricketts to fill a vacancy in the Legislature in 2019, after Slama had worked on his 2018 re-election campaign. Ricketts donated $20,000 to Slama’s 2020 campaign and defended the harsh campaign mailers aimed at Palmtag, a longtime volunteer for Republican candidates. The state GOP, meanwhile,  donated $113,000 to Slama and spent $49,950 on materials opposing Palmtag.

Palmtag filed suit 11 months ago,  accusing the state party of defamation in campaign mailers, ads and robocalls containing “intentional, reckless, and false statements.”

State Sen. Julie Slama
State Sen. Julie Slama
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Two campaign mailers claimed that Palmtag “broke the law and lost her real estate license” and was “too irresponsible” to be a state senator. Palmtag maintained that the mailers were untrue and that her license had never been revoked or suspended.

In a Jan. 13 motion, one of Palmtag’s attorneys, Adam Sipple of Omaha, asked that a subpoena be issued for Ricketts so he could explain what he knew about the campaign. “Information developed to date,” Sipple wrote, suggested that the mailers were sent “at the direction” of the governor, who had told State GOP Chairman Dan Welch to “go after Janet hard” in the election.  

In the motion, Welch is quoted as telling a Lancaster County party official that Ricketts had gotten egg on his face over the last few years” because senators he had appointed failed to win when they later stood for election. “He doesn’t want to see that happen again,” Welch is quoted saying, in regard to Slama.  

But on Jan. 14, just before a court hearing was scheduled on the motion to subpoena the governor, Sipple withdrew his request, stating that it was his  “intention to pursue other means of discovery before pursuing evidence from Mr. Ricketts at a later date.” 

That brought a sharp response from the GOP’s attorney, David Lopez of Omaha, who stated in a response brief that his clients reserve the right to seek repayment of their legal fees in fighting the attempted deposition of the governor after Palmtag’s attorney had called their opposition “frivolous.” Ricketts is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Lopez had opposed the request to depose the governor, calling it “burdensome, time-wasting, and costly” and unlikely to reveal any new information after Palmtag’s lawyers had already amassed a “voluminous” number of statements via depositions. Those included depositions of then-GOP Executive Director Ryan Hamilton, who vetted the anti-Palmtag mailers that were prepared by the political consultants Axiom. Welch ultimately approved them, court documents indicated. 

Ricketts, Lopez said, had no role in approving the mailer or of giving “specific directions” to Hamilton.

Lopez also cited a 2013 case in which a request to depose then-Gov. Heineman was rejected. In that case, the Heineman administration was sued after denying driver’s licenses to beneficiaries of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The judge in that case ruled that deposing the governor would not disclose any new information that hadn’t already been discovered — information that suggested Heineman had no role in the decision to deny the licenses.

Palmtag has a high bar to cross in proving she was defamed. Because she was a public figure, she must prove that any false statements were made with “actual malice.” 

The lawsuit was initially filed by Dave Domina, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for U.S. Senate in 2014 and for governor in 1986. Sipple, a lawyer in Domina’s firm, handled the most recent motions. He indicated that he wanted to question Ricketts, the GOP’s “de facto party head,” to explore the malice issue.

The Republican Party has maintained that its mailers were true because Palmtag’s company agreed to pay a $500 fine in 2018 for disbursing money from a trust fund without written permission of all parties involved. Palmtag had signed the consent agreement with the Iowa Real Estate Commission as “broker in charge.”

Palmtag’s attorneys, however, claim the penalty was against the corporation, not her as an individual. In addition, she maintains that the mailers falsely claimed her real estate license was “revoked” when the corporation voluntarily dropped its license.

In July, the presiding judge in the defamation case, Lancaster County District Judge Andrew Jacobsen, ruled that he did not have enough evidence to grant a GOP motion by the GOP to dismiss the case. He said he lacked enough evidence to rule on whether the mailers were “substantially true.”

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and later, editing the Papillion Times group in suburban Omaha. He joined the Lincoln Journal-Star as a sports enterprise reporter, and then a roving reporter covering southeast Nebraska. In 1990, he was hired by the Omaha World-Herald as a legislative reporter. Later, for 15 years, he roamed the state covering all kinds of news and feature stories. In the past decade, he served as chief of the Lincoln Bureau and enterprise reporter. Paul has won awards for reporting from Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press, Nebraska Newspaper Association and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.

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