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Former Rep. Wingard sues conservative groups for 'defamatory' election mailers

UPDATE: Defendant calls lawsuit 'bogus, ridiculous'

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Former state Rep. Matt Wingard is suing a handful of conservative groups because of campaign material they mailed to Wilsonville-area voters.Former Wilsonville state Rep. Matthew Wingard is suing the Oregon Family Council, Oregon Right to Life and a handful of conservative leaders for making statements he says cost him a chance to regain the legislative seat he gave up four years ago.

Wingard, who represented House District 26 in Wilsonville and Sherwood from 2008 to 2013, said in a 17-page complaint filed Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court that several conservation organizations and leaders distributed defamatory mailers during the May primary campaign on behalf of his GOP opponent, A. Richard Vial.

Wingard is seeking at least $500,000 in damages from defendants the Oregon Family Council’s political action committee, Oregon Right to Life, former state Sen. Charles Starr, Oregon Family Council Executive Director Jack A. Louman and Oregon Right to Life Executive Director Gayle Atteberry. Two other unnamed defendants are listed as John Doe 1 and 2.

Atteberry called the lawsuit "groundless, bogus, ridiculous."

"You can Google Matt and find worse accusations than were even brought up in the campaign," she said.

No court date has been set for the lawsuit.

According to Wingard’s complaint, the conservative groups used mailers and letters to district voters to repeat what he said was an unfounded charge that Wingard resigned his House seat “in disgrace” in 2012 (he finished his two-year term and didn’t seek re-election) because he had “pressured a staff member into a sexual relationship.”

The mailers and letters, while untrue and defamatory, were also “intended to subject (Wingard) to ridicule, and diminish the respect and confidence in which (he) is held by members of the community. In addition, these false statements impute (Wingard) in his business trade and profession,” according to the lawsuit.

Wingard claims the defendants “knew that the statements were false and acted maliciously, recklessly or in bad faith.” He said the statements caused him so much stress that he lost his appetite, was unable to sleep and became physically ill.

Wingard said the staffer’s charge was untrue. After his 2012 decision against seeking a third term, the staff member recanted her most serious claims about the relationship. Voters in the mostly rural district elected Republican John Davis to fill Wingard’s seat.

‘An easy political target’

In a July 2012 Pamplin Media Group opinion column, Wingard wrote that he probably wasn’t the best candidate because “as a Republican single man who dates, I am especially vulnerable to attacks about my personal life. I’m also a bit too libertarian for some social conservatives within my party. In addition, an 18-year contentious custody and visitation battle over my son made for juicy headlines when I ran for office the first time in 2008. In short, I’m an easy political target.”

Answering the former staff member’s charge about their relationship, Wingard said the law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation “closed their cases without interviewing a single witness.”

“Let me be very clear that my former staffer did not tell the truth, a fact that she has willingly admitted,” Wingard wrote. “However, after nearly two years, I no longer have much of the evidence that would clearly prove the four-month relationship was consensual.”

Wingard wrote that “a small group of socially conservative and well-connected Republicans, including one local party official, had been deeply involved in encouraging that staffer to make claims against me and had also spent the last two years digging around in my private life looking for more mud to sling.”

He said the incident signaled a “bruising” campaign ahead, and decided against seeking re-election.

“Am I perfect? No. Not even close,” Wingard wrote. “Have I made decisions that I now wish I hadn’t? Yes. That doesn’t make me a poor father, friend, legislator or a target for political detractors; it makes me a human being.”

In March, Wingard announced that he planned to run again for the open Wilsonville-area House seat. He lost in the May 17 primary election’s three-way race with John Boylston and Vial.