LANSING, Mich. — Officials with a political news Web site said yesterday that a story published about Election Day voter challenges was accurate and that they were fighting a defamation suit filed by a GOP official.
The Web site, The Michigan Messenger, quoted Macomb County Republican Chairman James Carabelli in a Sept. 10 article as saying that Republicans "will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses."
Carabelli said in a lawsuit filed last week in Macomb County Circuit Court that he never made the comment. He's asking for monetary damages and attorney fees.
Jefferson Morley, editorial director of The Michigan Messenger and its parent organization, the Washington-based Center for Independent Media, said yesterday in a conference call with reporters that the article was accurate and that the Web publication is standing behind reporter Eartha Jane Melzer.
"We've reviewed Eartha's phone records and e-mails to recreate what Eartha reported and how she did it," Morley said. "This review of the record leaves no doubt that the conversation with Mr. Carabelli took place, that the question of voter challenges was discussed, that Mr. Carabelli said what he said, that Eartha reported those comments immediately and accurately to her editors, and then to readers."
Michigan Republican Party spokesman Bill Nowling said the two may have spoken about foreclosures, but Carabelli never said the words that Melzer reported.
"It's not a question of, 'Well, he kind of wavered on whether he said it or not,'" Nowling said. "He's been vociferous ... (that) he didn't say it, that it was the reporter who kept trying to angle this story with leading questions, and that the quote attributed to him was pieced together or fabricated."
Nowling added that there "never has been, never will be" a plan by the state GOP or county GOP leaders to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters on Nov. 4.
The Michigan Messenger story drew national attention and outrage from some bloggers and political commentators.
It also prompted the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the Democratic National Committee and several Macomb County voters to file a lawsuit in federal court in Detroit asking for an injunction prohibiting the Macomb County GOP, the Michigan Republican Party, the Republican National Committee or anyone connected with them from challenging Michigan voters whose homes are on foreclosure lists.
Obama, running mate Joe Biden and a dozen other Democratic U.S. senators also sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey asking him to ensure that voters facing foreclosure aren't harassed or intimidated at polling places.
Carabelli complained in his lawsuit that the story injured his reputation. Melzer, Morley and Center for Independent Media President and CEO David Bennahum were named in the suit along with The Michigan Messenger.
During yesterday's call, Bennahum called the lawsuit "baseless" and said he had told the center's lawyers to aggressively defend the story.
"In my opinion, this lawsuit is an attempt by an official of one of the parties in a hotly contested presidential election to control the coverage by a nonpartisan media outlet as it reports on crucial issues in this election. This is not what the First Amendment is all about," Bennahum said.
Michigan Republican Party officials have charged that the article was published on a partisan Web site to discredit Republicans. They note that Melzer is listed as a contributor to a quarterly Grand Traverse County Democratic Party newsletter.
Morley and Bennahum say the Web site isn't biased. It was noted after the phone call that Melzer wrote the article for the Democratic newsletter before she worked for The Michigan Messenger.