Philly Politicians to Battle It Out in Rare Libel Suit Brought Over Campaign Flyer
[Updated, 3:55 p.m.] State Rep. Mark Cohen has been in Harrisburg a very, very long time. Originally elected in 1974, the Democratic legislator from the 202nd District in Northeast Philadelphia is the most senior member of the Capitol’s two lawmaking bodies, but now he faces a formidable challenge from 37-year-old Jared Solomon, who has recently picked up some impressive endorsements. This is actually Solomon’s second attempt to take Cohen’s seat — Cohen bested him by just 158 votes in 2014 — and this race is more contentious than the last. But we were still surprised to see Cohen file a lawsuit against Solomon after this political flyer showed up in his mailbox on Brighton Street.
“These days, people think that you can say whatever you want about a person and get away with it,” says prominent Center City attorney Chuck Peruto, who is representing Cohen. “But you can’t. And this is crossing the line.”
The “this” that Peruto is referring to is the part of the flyer that states that Cohen bought a second home in Harrisburg and billed taxpayers for it to the tune of $30,000. Cohen says that the statement is simply untrue, and he’s suing Solomon for defamation and for maliciously casting the incumbent in a false light. Solomon did it, claims the suit, “to capitalize on the anger and emotion surrounding corrupt politicians,” and now, Cohen says his reputation has been damaged.
And to read the complaint that Peruto drafted, Cohen’s reputation is unimpeachable. A few examples from the lengthy biography included in the complaint:
• For seven years, Plaintiff Cohen served as chairman of the Pennsylvania House Labor Relations Committee.
• During his tenure, he fought to protect the rights of workers and working families by increasing the minimum wage, protecting workers’ compensation benefits, protecting unemployment compensation benefits, and protecting SSDI benefits.
• Plaintiff Cohen was the prime mover behind Pennsylvania’s Minimum Wage law and Pennsylvania’s Worker Right to Know Law.
At times, the complaint reads like a TV spot for the candidate.
We reached out to Solomon to see if, perhaps, his campaign had sent out the flyer without his knowledge, but he stood behind the flyer and the accusation made in it, pointing to a CBS3 investigative report from 2012 that questioned $39,000 in “per-diem” payments that Cohen had reportedly collected the previous year.
State legislators are allowed to expense costs that are supposed to be associated with them being in Harrisburg, whether they are in session or not. The CBS3 report found that Cohen’s expense reports were particularly high, nearly twice that of any other state representative from the Philadelphia area.
According to that story, Cohen reported being in the capital 25 days in July 2011, even though the House didn’t meet at all that month. Cohen explained to the reporter that some of the money in question went to maintenance on a house in Harrisburg and “living expenses.”
The suit seeks unspecified damages in excess of $100,000, but it won’t be easy to win. If you’re a regular Joe and someone says something untrue about you that damages your reputation, you’ve got a good chance of winning a libel suit against that person. But for an elected official, the standard is different. Cohen has to demonstrate that the statement was false and damaging to him, yes, but he also has to prove that Solomon knew it was false (if, in fact, it was false) or that Solomon had “reckless disregard” for whether it was true or not. This is why libel suits are so rarely brought by politicians.
“This is just a distraction,” says Solomon of the suit. “We challenged Mark to a debate, and then he challenged our petitions. So now that we’ve reissued the challenge to a debate, Mark’s response is now to try and sue. We want to talk about what this community is going through and about priorities in Harrisburg. I think the people deserve a substantive debate.”
But Joseph Driscoll, a consultant for Cohen’s campaign, says Cohen has, in fact, agreed to a debate. “Rep. Cohen agreed to participate in a debate moderated by Tom Waring [from the Northeast Times] verbally during a recent interview.”
This post has been updated to include a comment from Joseph Driscoll.
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.