By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
A Washington lobbyist filed a $27 million defamation lawsuit against the New York Times yesterday, accusing the newspaper of falsely intimating that she had a romantic relationship with Sen. John McCain and used it to benefit her clients.
The lawsuit by Vicki L. Iseman, filed in U.S. District Court in Richmond, focuses on a 3,000-word article the paper published Feb. 21 as the senator from Arizona was leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The suit blasts the paper for publishing what it called "gossip and innuendo."
The Times reported that some of McCain's top advisers had become convinced during his first campaign for the White House, in 2000, of a romantic relationship between the two and that they worried that Iseman's clients often had business before the Senate committee McCain led. The article broadly examined McCain's crusade for stricter ethics rules and whether "his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.''
Abbe Ruttenberg Serphos, a Times spokeswoman, said the paper "fully" stands behind its report. "We continue to believe it to be true and accurate, and that we will prevail. . . . It was an important piece that raised questions about a presidential contender and the perception that he had been engaged in conflicts of interest," she said.
A spokeswoman for McCain did not return a telephone call and an e-mail seeking comment late yesterday. McCain has denied any romantic relationship, and his campaign called the Times report "gutter politics" when it ran.
Iseman, a telecommunications lobbyist and partner at the Arlington County-based firm Alcalde & Fay, declined to comment yesterday through her attorney.
Rodney Smolla, Iseman's attorney, denied in an interview that his client and McCain had been romantically involved and said the Times article "was very damaging to her professionally and personally."
The article was criticized by conservatives, numerous Times readers and the paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, who said it had "raised one of the most toxic subjects in politics -- sex" without offering any proof that "McCain and Iseman had a romance." But some media analysts called the article, which also scrutinized potential conflicts of interest in McCain's background, an appropriate examination of his record.
The lawsuit names the New York Times Co., Executive Editor Bill Keller, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet, and reporters Jim Rutenberg, David D. Kirkpatrick, Stephen Labaton and Marilyn W. Thompson. Thompson is now an editor at The Washington Post.