Lobbyist Vicki Iseman Settles Libel Suit Over N.Y. Times Story Linking Her to McCain

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

Vicki Iseman, the Washington lobbyist who sued the New York Times over an article about her relationship with Arizona Sen. John McCain, settled yesterday in exchange for a note to readers posted on the paper's Web site.

"The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust," says the note, which will also be published in today's editions.

Rodney Smolla, Iseman's attorney, said she is ending the $27 million lawsuit because the paper's "retraction," as he put it, "publicly withdraws the libelous implications that were at the heart of the complaint. . . . That's an honorable judgment by the Times and a vindication of Ms. Iseman's reputation."

Dean Baquet, the Times' Washington bureau chief, said in an interview that Smolla's description "defies reason. . . . I would defy anyone," he said, to read the settlement agreement "and come away saying that we retracted the story." Baquet said he and Executive Editor Bill Keller "are saying forcefully that we stand by the story, that we support the story completely, that we did not retract a word."

In a memo to his staff, Baquet added: "We paid no money. We did not apologize."

Reached last night, Iseman said: "I'm happy with the settlement. I feel vindicated. I wanted my reputation back. If you take away all the spin and read the statement by the New York Times, I think it says it all."

The article about McCain, then the presumed Republican presidential nominee, roiled the campaign when it was published last February. It reported that some unnamed advisers in McCain's 2000 presidential bid, including two who said "they had become disillusioned with the senator," were "convinced the relationship had become romantic" and tried to "block the woman's access."

The McCain campaign called the piece "gutter politics," and numerous media critics said the paper had failed to back up what they viewed as the implication of an improper relationship. Clark Hoyt, the Times' public editor, wrote that the article "offered readers no proof that McCain and Iseman had a romance." Keller said at the time that the campaign was trying "to use the New York Times as an opportunity to rally the base."

McCain's office had no comment yesterday.

Iseman told National Journal in October that she was a "mess" after the story was published. She said the Times "chose to disregard" many of her answers and "set out to write a story about a 'romantic relationship' in exchange for legislative favors. . . . Make the lobbyist a prostitute -- pretty heady stuff. The only problem was, they were wrong on all counts."

Asked if the story implied an illicit romance, Baquet said "this is what McCain's aides were concerned about" and that the story "would have been less than truthful" had that not been included. "We worked very carefully to write what we knew," he said.

Smolla said the settlement of the suit, which was filed in December, clarifies the record "without the expense and sideshow of a long, drawn-out trial."

As part of the settlement, the Times Web site yesterday published a commentary by Smolla and a colleague, arguing that Iseman "is not a government or public official, and in our view, not even a public figure. Had this case proceeded to trial, the judicial determination of whether she is entitled to the protections afforded a private citizen would have been the subject of a ferocious, pivotal battle." Plaintiffs who are deemed public figures have a higher burden of proof in libel cases.

Keller, in an online rebuttal, said the Times "is mindful of the damage that can be done by overly invasive journalism or sensationalism." But he rejected the notion the Iseman is not a public figure, saying that "a publicly registered lobbyist is hired to influence public officials on matters of public policy. That seems to us to be exactly the sort of figure journalists are supposed to watch with close attention, and who thus are required to meet a higher standard in proving defamation."

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