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A claim of ‘false’ when the ad is basically true

“Seen those ads attacking Thom Tillis? They’re false. Tillis fired the staffers.”

— voiceover of Thom Tillis (R) ad responding to Senate Majority PAC ad

The Fact Checker has been critical of a number of ads by Senate Majority PAC, which is affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But a recent ad attacking North Carolina Senate hopeful Thom Tillis (R) comes close to the mark— and certainly is more accurate that Tillis’s response ad claiming that the “sleazy” ad is “false.”

Let’s explore.

The Facts

Tillis is the North Carolina House speaker and hopes to win the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Kay Hagan (D). In 2012, within the space of a week, it was revealed that two of his top aides, including his chief of staff, were having affairs with different married lobbyists.

At the time, Tillis announced that the aides had resigned and that he had authorized one month’s severance for each aide — $12,500 for chief of staff Charles Thomas and $6,833.33 for policy adviser Amy Hobbs. (They also received thousands of dollars in unused vacation time.) By contrast, the N.C. Home Builders Association said it paid no severance to its lobbyist, Jessica Hayes, who had had an intimate relationship with Thomas.

Here’s how WRAL-TV put it: “Payment for unused vacation time is standard for state employees who resign. But ‘Payment in Lieu of Notice’ is not. Legislative employees like Thomas are ‘EPA’ – exempt from the State Personnel Act – and can be fired at will with no notice.”

But Tillis defended the payments as “fair” in the face of complaints that he should not use taxpayer funds for the severance. He argued that the aides had left their posts immediately and thus did not have a chance to give the standard two weeks’ notice.

“I recognized that their jobs and careers were forever affected by their choices,” Tillis said in a statement quoted in the Raleigh News & Observer, “and that serious family obligations still existed for each of them. I stand by my decision to accept their resignation while recognizing the difficult transition period they are now entering.”

Okay, with those facts at hand, let’s see how Senate Majority PAC described it:

“Thom Tillis shared an apartment with his chief of staff when North Carolina news reported that the chief of staff was having an extramarital affair with a lobbyist. He was caught on camera and resigned. Then one week later, another Tillis staffer resigns for another sexual relationship with a lobbyist. Thom Tillis’s reaction? He claimed he was surprised by his roommate’s affair, but then rewarded both aides with taxpayer-paid bonuses. Thom Tillis: Spending our money to clean up his mess.”

The only thing a bit dubious in this account is the language that Tillis “rewarded” the aides with money. It makes it sounds like he rewarded them for having an affair or for having been caught. But otherwise, the ad captures the essence of a pretty juicy local scandal.

By contrast, the Tillis response ad flatly states that the ad is “false.” But what is false about it?

“Speaker Tillis initiated the action that resulted in the termination of employment,” said Jordan Shaw, Tillis campaign manager and spokesman. “He asked for (and received) their resignations.”

To some extent, this is a semantic dispute. The aides obviously resigned under pressure, and that point is made clear in the Senate Majority PAC ad. That’s not enough to flatly label the Senate Majority PAC ad as “false” — especially since Tillis at the time repeatedly said the aides resigned. (He did not even say he asked for their resignations, simply that he “accepted” them.)

Besides, the key point in the Senate Majority PAC ad is that Tillis gave the aides taxpayer-funded severance payments. The response ad is simply silent on that point, and instead veers into an attack on Reid for “meddling” in a Republican primary.

The Pinocchio Test

The Tillis campaign uses the “false” label too quickly. The story may be sleazy, but the facts in the Democratic ad are fairly solid. The Tillis response ad earns Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.

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