“Malinowski tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows. Malinowski worked as the top lobbyist for a radical group that strongly opposed the national sex offender registry. Law enforcement praised the national sex offender registry that Tom Malinowski led an effort to stop.”

— voice-over of ad released by the National Republican Congressional Committee, released Sept. 15, 2020

This is an eerie ad that starts off with the chilling words: “In every city, in every neighborhood, around every corner, sex offenders are living among us.” It has dark images and subtitles that claim “Tom Malinowski, helping sexual predators hide in the shadows” and “Tom Malinowski chose sex offenders over your family.”

Malinowski (D-N.J.) is a first-term member of Congress. He won a seat previously held by a Republican and so is high on the list for Republicans to win back the House. The Cook Political Report currently rates the race “lean Democrat.”

But this ad is not attacking Malinowski for anything he may have done in Congress; it makes these charges based on his tenure as an official at Human Rights Watch, a leading nongovernmental organization that exposes human rights abuses around the world.

In his first race, Malinowski was falsely attacked for supposedly lobbying for terrorist rights. (He argued that Guantánamo detainees had a right to a hearing to challenge the basis for their detention — a position later held up by the Supreme Court.)

Somehow, this detail in his past must have escaped GOP researchers in 2018. Let’s take a look.

Disclosure: The writer of this fact check was The Washington Post’s chief State Department correspondent for nine years, 2002 to 2011, and quoted Malinowski 18 times during that period on various human rights issues. During that period, he once met Malinowski for a few minutes in the green room at “PBS NewsHour.”

The Facts

Malinowski is a longtime foreign policy maven. Before joining HRW, he worked at the State Department and the White House National Security Council. During Barack Obama’s second term, Malinowski was named assistant secretary of state for human rights. Interestingly, his registering as a lobbyist — on behalf of the victims of genocide in Darfur and Myanmar, among other issues — prevented his appointment in Obama’s first term because of rules adopted by the new president.

So it was surprising to see the claim that Malinowski was involved in a domestic issue such as the national sex offender registry.

Michael McAdam, NRCC national press secretary, said the ad is based on solid facts: “His name is on the lobbying disclosure lobbying against the sex offender registry.” Moreover, he said, Malinowski’s title was Washington advocacy director, indicating he headed the organization’s Washington activities.

Pages 2 and 3 of the 2006 lobbying form list dozens of issues, including “sex offender legislation.” Malinowski is listed, but so is Jennifer Daskal.

Daskal, a professor at American University, said in an interview that she was the HRW lobbyist for U.S. domestic issues while Malinowski handled the foreign policy side. “I was not working Darfur,” she said. “He was not working these issues,” referring to the sex offender registry.

In media interviews at the time, Daskal was identified as U.S. program advocacy director for HRW.

Daskal contributed $500 to Malinowski’s House campaign in 2017, a fact that McAdam cited to rebut her as a credible witness. But Daskal noted that in the Congressional Record, a letter on behalf of HRW was published under her name and title (“Advocacy Director, U.S. Program”), raising concerns about the legislation. McAdam did not respond to queries about the letter.

Emma Daly, an HRW spokeswoman, also confirmed that Malinowski was not involved in legislation. “HRW’s job titles can be a bit confusing, but the Washington director role covers foreign policy,” Daly said. “Jen Daskal worked for the U.S. program, which focuses on U.S. domestic issues.”

Both Daly and Daskal objected to the way the ad framed HRW’s concerns about the legislation. “HRW advocated for laws that better protect children and the public by reforming sex offense registries and focusing law enforcement resources to tackle those most at risk of offending,” Daly said. “The ad wrongly portrays this position as helping ‘predators hide in the shadows’ and otherwise being in favor of sex offenses. That’s false.”

The ad claims HRW was “strongly opposed” to a national sex offender registry. But the letter signed by Daskal did not object to creating one.

Instead, the letter said HRW opposed the bill because the language was so sweeping that it included low-level or misdemeanor offenders, such as people charged with public urination, who were attempting to reintegrate into the community after serving their sentences. “Registration requirements put these individuals at risk of retaliation and discrimination and make it extremely difficult for these individuals to find employment, housing, and to rebuild their lives,” Daskal wrote.

Daskal said it was originally Malinowski’s idea to submit lobbying forms, a fact confirmed by a Malinowski aide. He said Malinowski read about new lobbying requirements and decided to submit a lobbying disclosure form out of an abundance of caution.

“They opted not to hire a consulting firm to help with the process. This led them to fill out the forms by listing every lobbying activity undertaken by the organization and signing all lobbyists to the form,” the aide said. “Eventually, they did hire an out-of-house specialist who informed HRW they were not legally obligated to submit these lobbying forms and so they stopped.”

Ironically, that decision led to a delay in Malinowski’s appointment to the Obama administration and now at least two attack ads.

(Note: The ad describes HRW as a “radical” organization. That may be a matter of opinion — in 2019 Israel expelled the HRW director for Israel and Palestinians — but the group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its work fighting land mines. The group has been criticized by two other Nobel laureates for having “close ties” and a “revolving door” with the U.S. government, such as Malinowski’s appointment in the Obama administration.)

The Pinocchio Test

This ad makes some bold claims that put Malinowski at the center of the action: “Tom Malinowski tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows. … Law enforcement praised the national sex offender registry that Tom Malinowski led an effort to stop. … Tom Malinowski chose sex offenders over your family.”

The supposed evidence is a lobbying disclosure form that lists Malinowski and Daskal as handling dozens of issues, not identifying who was the point person on any of them. But Daskal said she was in charge of domestic issues — a claim backed by her signature on the letter to lawmakers on the issue. Malinowski had the title of Washington advocacy director, but HRW says that means he did foreign policy — which makes sense, given HRW is primarily a foreign policy organization.

Moreover, HRW did not oppose a national sex offender registry as the ad implies.

The bulk of the evidence shows Malinowski played no role in this debate. But he did work for an organization that objected to a type of national sex offender registry created in legislation. That fact might have kept this ad at Three Pinocchios. But the NRCC’s over-the-top language — such as “Tom Malinowski chose sex offenders over your family” — tipped our rating to Four. Such inflammatory claims should not be made on such flimsy evidence.

Four Pinocchios

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