The NCPA’s Swift Boat Campaign Against Its Own Leader and Founder
John Goodman and Pete du Pont left the National Center for Policy analysis in June 2014. Goodman’s departure was not unexpected. He had announced his desire to retire and a search committee had been interviewing candidates over the previous 12 months.
At the time he left, Goodman offered in writing to speak with one voice to donors and to the media about the departure – to help keep the organization’s reputation in good standing. He also offered to help with donors – to satisfy any remaining grant requirements and encourage continued support. Had this offer been accepted, there would have been no lawsuits. And no war of words in the newspapers.
However, board chairman Jerry Mills refused the offer. As the defense brief makes clear in National Center for Policy Analysis v. Ogletree, the NCPA approached Merrie Spaeth, the woman who boasts of creating the “swift boat” ads that attacked John Kerry during his presidential campaign. They engaged her to conduct a swift boat campaign against their own president and founder.
This was not a hand’s off arrangement. Individual board members were involved in all aspects of the campaign – giving advice and sharing information.
The swift boat campaign was carried out in meticulous detail. For example, minutes before the NCPA issued a press release announcing Goodman’s departure, his phone and access to his email was abruptly cancelled. Without phone or email, reporters would have no ability to contact him to get his side of the story. At the same time, reporters were given the phone number of his ex-wife – a possible source of negative information. The NCPA’s Acting CEO actually called her, in search of dirt. (What would he have done with the information if there really were dirt to share?)
Within 24 hours of Goodman’s departure, Mills began trashing him to donors. Within 48 hours, he was trashing Goodman to the media. Du Pont and Goodman responded firmly, but they didn’t cross the line. Mills did cross the line. The NCPA mailed defamatory statements to the organization’s donors; it made similar statements in a press release sent to the national news media; and it erected a banner ad at the NCPA’s web site that boasted of Goodman’s departure and linked to the defamatory press release.
That’s why Goodman pursued a claim for libel and slander. Since Goodman is a public figure, if you say something bad about him by mistake you have nothing to fear. To be vulnerable, you have to say something you know is false at the time you say it (reckless disregard for the truth) and do so for the express purpose of harming him (malice). The NCPA apparently met both those high bars with room to spare.
The NCPA paid Goodman a substantial sum of money to settle the libel suit and Goodman used the money to start a new think tank – the Goodman Institute.
The war of words in the newspaper was completely one-sided. Every unfavorable news story was initiated by the NCPA. The NCPA was first to talk to National Review. They were the first to issue a press release. They were the first to talk to the Dallas Morning News and the first to talk to D Magazine. Anything Goodman or Pete du Pont or their lawyers said to reporters was a purely defensive reaction.
Since in the minds of many donors, there was no substantial difference between Goodman and the NCPA, there was not a great deal of difference between trashing Goodman and trashing the NCPA itself
It gets worse. At the time of the NCPA’s settlement with Goodman, everyone agreed to go forward peacefully. They even put out a joint press release promising that. But behind the scenes, the swift boat campaign was just revving up. NCPA executives and some board members continued the slander in conversations with donors and others in the public policy world. (Some of this is detailed in Joe Gillespie’s letter to Allen West.) Within two months, D Magazine was writing about an office “affair” and the NCPA began talking to reporters about a “sexual harassment scandal.” By the D Magazine author’s own admission, virtually all the information in his “sex scandal” article came from the NCPA itself.
Ironically, this campaign hurt the NCPA much more than it hurt Goodman. NCPA directors knew, or should have known, that a scandal would be bad for business – especially a manufactured sex scandal that was broadcast to the national news media, sent out over the Internet and distributed to the donor community. Perhaps they didn’t care. If you Google the words “National Center for Policy Analysis + sex scandal” six of the first eight items that pop up are news articles generated by the NCPA itself!
After losing the lawsuit, two thirds of the NCPA board resigned. Yet the swift boat campaign continued with the knowledge and participation of the remaining board – knowing full well that there was no purpose other than spitefulness and vengeful retaliation.
It was also very reckless retaliation. Information covered by a confidentiality agreement in a sexual harassment suit was apparently delivered by the NCPA to D Magazine for the express purpose of encouraging its publication and widespread dissemination. Further, after the article was published the NCPA republished it by distributing it to numerous other parties. NCPA personnel also embellished upon the article, adding details that were often false. For example, NCPA personnel have repeatedly asserted that there was a “sexual affair” when in fact there was no affair.
As part of the swift boat campaign, the NCPA filed a lawsuit against its own board secretary (Mike Baggett) and his entire law firm (Winstead). They then sought to publicize the suit in the local media. Lawyers at such top firms as Baker Botts, Vincent Elkins and Winstead judged the suit to be frivolous and without merit. But the purpose may not have been financial.
One reason the suit was frivolous was that the NCPA waived all claims against Mike Baggett and the Winstead firm in its previous settlement with Goodman. A similar NCPA lawsuit against the Ogletree law firm resulted in a $10,000 nuisance settlement – a small fraction of the legal costs the NCPA incurred to pursue it.
However, in the Winstead case NCPA board members believed they could use a legal petition to continue defaming Goodman (using some of the same language that cost them so dearly in the Goodman libel and slander suit) without fear of being sued for libel all over again. Also, they apparently hoped they could pressure Winstead into a quick settlement in order to avoid more embarrassing publicity about a sex scandal and their law firm.
That strategy worked. Winstead agreed to a large settlement to get rid of the litigation. This was a pyrrhic victory, however.
A fly-by-night litigant in a case like this can extort the money and run. However, a nonprofit organization in Dallas Texas cannot survive without asking for voluntary contributions from the very people it was insulting and embarrassing and suing – as well as from all their friends and business associates.
At the time, Mike Baggett was arguably the most prominent lawyer in Dallas. He was the former head of the Dallas bar. He was former head of the Chamber of Commerce. He was personally responsible for organizing the restoration of Belo mansion. He was why we have the American Airlines Center. He represented Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys. He did deals with the mayor. He was the chairman emeritus of the largest law firm in Dallas.
The NCPA’s lawsuit against Baggett gave him and 300 other lawyers, including former state representative Dan Branch, ample reason to bad mouth the think tank when discussing it with their clients, other lawyers and friends.
The NCPA spent 31 years building up good will with the Dallas business community. All that was destroyed by a handful of board members in the space of a few days.