Politically motivated slander suits are nothing new in Tennessee, and Davidson County Circuit Judge Joe P. Binkley seems to have found more of the same in Black v. Zelenik, going so far as to state that charges of U.S. Rep. Diane Black’s wrongdoing are “substantially true.”
David Black, husband of Diane Black (R-Gallatin), and his drug testing firm, Aegis Sciences Corporation, filed suit in the midst of a hotly contested U.S. House primary campaign against Lou Ann Zelenik in 2010 after her campaign began airing ads that accused Black of steering millions of dollars in no-bid state contracts to her husband’s firm through her position as a state senator, in violation of state law.
“The communication was true or at least substantially true,” reads the April ruling by Binkley, who sided with Zelenik and summarily dismissed Black’s lawsuit as frivolous.
Black’s firm appealed the ruling in late April, and the matter is ongoing in the midst of another primary battle with Zelenik for the Republican nomination in Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District.
Documents reveal accusations of Black and her husband profiting from her political power in the state senate were nothing new, having been copied nearly word-for-word from a Tennessee Democratic Party mailer during Black’s 2008 re-election campaign for state senate.
Additionally, Black’s actions were detailed in a December 2007 issue of The Gallatin Newspaper, and were the subject of a WSMV Channel 4 News investigation in January of the same year.
Neither Black nor her family business hauled anyone to court at that time, but, then again, she was cruising to re-election by a 2-1 margin and had poured more than $50,000 of her own money into the race, according to documents filed with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.
Her 2010 contest with Zelenik became a much different race, not only because she was seeking higher office in U.S. Congress, but also because she had a formidable opponent.
Zelenik, who is proud of never having held political office, rose from near-obscurity as a Tea Party leader and conservative firebrand, originally entering the race to take on incumbent U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon before the Murfreesboro Democrat decided against seeking reelection.
When Gordon announced his retirement, state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) immediately entered the race followed by Black, herself a state senator and Republican caucus leader.
Political prognosticators counted Zelenik out, but by late June polls leaked to the press indicated she was on top by a small margin, with Black and Tracy following close behind.
Then, almost immediately, came the lawsuit against Zelenik.
“Slander and defamation suits certainly have a chilling effect on your opponent coming forward with negative information about you,” said political scientist John Vile, dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. “They can cause an opponent to stop and slow down when they otherwise would not, and such lawsuits could give voters the impression that your opponent is not being truthful, but they’ve become exceedingly difficult for public figures to actually prove and win in court.”
Slander: A Tennessee tradition
The use of such suits in Tennessee politics is nothing new either.
One of the most notable instances took place in 1954, when U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver found himself in a tough Democratic Primary battle with state Rep. Pat Sutton of Lawrenceburg.
Kefauver had just waged and narrowly lost a battle on the floor of the 1952 Democratic Convention for the party’s presidential nomination, and political pundits considered him weakened as he prepared to seek reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1954.
All the competition was in the Democratic primary at that time, and the nomination was tantamount to election since Republicans were almost completely limited to the eastern third of Tennessee.
Sutton rose to challenge Kefauver with financial backing from a wealthy Texas oil magnate, who no doubt played a part in Sutton becoming the first Tennessee candidate to impress crowds with a helicopter tour through the state (Texan Lyndon Johnson had been the first in the nation to do so with a helicopter dubbed “The Johnson City Windmill” just six years prior in his 1948 U.S. Senate re-election campaign).
Sutton, a native of Wartrace and an MTSU graduate who became a Naval hero in Word War II, traveled the state lambasting Kefauver with charges of “befriending left-wing Northerners” and labeled one of Kefauver’s friends as a “known communist.”
Sensing the rising threat from Sutton, Kefauver’s friend promptly filed a slander suit which grabbed statewide headlines, halted Sutton’s momentum, and handed Kefauver the nomination.
The suit was dropped soon after the election.
No end in sight
In the case of Black versus Zelenik, however, the issue did not end with the 2010 election, and Aegis’ lawyers continued to push back the court hearing until after the April filing deadline in this year’s race for the newly drawn 6th District, possibly sensing the lawsuit could be a tool in an expected rematch with Zelenik.
Binkley dismissed the case in mid-April, forcing Aegis to pay the costly fees for litigation and further appeals, but money for attorneys’ fees seems easy to find for Aegis Sciences Corporation and its co-owners, the Blacks.
Black and her husband are in the process of building what could be the largest residence in the state, a palatial 27,000-square foot home on Old Hickory Lake in her home county of Sumner, and her required financial disclosures indicate millions of dollars in yearly profits from Aegis and other ventures.
She is listed as one of the wealthiest members of Congress, and, since her election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Aegis Sciences has expanded heavily by winning additional drug testing contracts nationwide.
Appeals court hearings in the case have not been scheduled by Aegis’ counsel, and for their part, Zelenik, in her campaign for the Republican nomination in Tennessee’s 6th U.S. House District, vows to remain focused in spite of the legal threats hanging over their heads.
“This is the kind of dirty politics that we have come to expect from Diane Black,” Zelenik’s campaign manager Jay Heine said. “Lou Ann Zelenik plans on running a positive campaign based on the issues and not on who can throw the most amount of mud.”
Messages left for Rep. Diane Black at both her campaign office and district offices were not returned.