At the end of the 58-second clip, the women’s voices become one as they plead, “Stop Brandon Whipple.”
The video’s first quote came from a real story of a University of Kansas intern mistreated by a male state legislator in Topeka, Kan. But one notable detail was not in the attack ad: The intern had accused a Republican state senator, not state Rep. Whipple, a Democrat who is now running for mayor in Wichita, the state’s largest city.
Whipple is now suing and alleging that the ad slandered him, and local reporters have found that the man behind the video shares office space with two prominent Kansas Republicans.
The false ad appeared online as transparency and truthfulness in campaign ads have stirred national concern. Facebook’s controversial policy to allow candidates to post false statements in political ads without retribution has drawn ridicule from many and anger on Capitol Hill.
The misleading video also materialized amid ongoing fallout from the #MeToo movement — in Kansas, where the state legislature has endured multiple harassment scandals, and nationally, as Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) announced she is resigning amid a messy controversy sparked by private photos allegedly leaked by her estranged husband, whom she is divorcing.
The first allegation made in the video was eerily similar to a quote from a 2017 Kansas City Star report about widespread harassment of state capitol interns. Other stories the women in the video tell, of feeling uncomfortable around politicians and being asked repeatedly to be designated drivers, appear to be inspired in part by another Star story on Topeka’s 2017 harassment scandal.
None of those cases involved Whipple. The Star mentions Whipple only once in those stories, to quote him saying he recalled being driven to and from only one event by an intern, who was a man.
“The one time when a male intern drove a group of us to and from an official event was shown to have nothing to do with sexual harassment,” Whipple, 37, told the Eagle last week after the video surfaced. “So, I think they’re doing this because I’m a young male and every time I run in a competitive race, they have attacked my family and they attack my marriage and this is just what they do.”
The source of the video remained hidden behind the shell company until reporters at the Eagle managed to track down one of the actresses in the video. She told the newspaper that a 21-year-old named Matthew Colborn recruited her to read the script, which she thought was for a public service announcement about domestic violence. Colborn allegedly paid her $50.
“Oh my gosh, knowing that it’s a lie now, I just feel terrible,” she told the Eagle. “All I want to do is like hug the people that I’ve tarred in the whole thing and just apologize, because I had no idea.”
The Eagle reported that Colborn, the man who allegedly produced the political smear, filmed it in a downtown Wichita office shared with two elected Republicans, state Rep. Michael Capps and Wichita City Councilman James Clendenin.
Clendenin acknowledged working in the building and knowing Colborn, who works as Capps’s campaign manager, though he denied any association with the video.
“Nothing like that happened while I was around,” he told the Eagle. “Of course, I haven’t been around very much, either.”
Capps, Clendenin and Colborn did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Tuesday, Whipple filed a lawsuit against Colborn and two “John Doe” defendants, accusing them of defaming him in the campaign ad. The lawsuit alleges a conspiracy between Colborn and political supporters of Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell (R).
“The defendants apparently believe that they can influence an election by posting horribly false and defamatory statements about the plaintiff,” the lawsuit said.
Whipple aims to unseat Longwell. He has snagged endorsements from several labor unions, including those that represent the city’s firefighters and police officers. The Eagle’s editorial board endorsed him this week as an alternative to the Republican incumbent, who has been caught steering city contracts to friends.
Wichita residents will cast their votes in the mayoral race on Nov. 5.