Raleigh, N.C. — Two Republican candidates vying for the chance to succeed retiring Congressman Howard Coble have accused the other of airing false ads in the race, and at least one may even file a libel suit.
Phil Berger Jr. and Bruce Von Cannon are among nine Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for the 6th Congressional District in the May 6 primary. The district stretches along the North Carolina-Virginia border from Surry County to Granville County and includes the Greensboro area and northern Orange and Durham counties.
Polls have shown Berger, the district attorney in Rockingham County and the son of the Republican state Senate leader, with a wide lead in the race, but a Super PAC backing him fired the first shot in the dispute in an ad that started running on cable television last week.
Keep Conservatives United states in its ad that Von Cannon worked for wealthy Chinese and that "his private Swiss banking group" helped back Chinese textile firms that decimated North Carolina's textile industry.
"An international banker for the Chinese representing us? Sorry Bruce," the ad's narrator says as a gong sounds. "We'd rather have the jobs back."
Von Cannon's campaign sent letters to both Time Warner Cable and to Keep Conservatives United outlining its beefs with the ad, which they called "false and defamatory." The campaign noted that Von Cannon never worked for any Chinese individual or business and that he worked for a publicly traded bank, not a "private Swiss banking group."
The campaign goes on to state that Keep Conservatives United had to link together a chain of Chinese investment funds and trusts just to tie the bank's majority shareholder to two Chinese textile firms, and the super PAC failed to document that either company ever sold any textiles in the U.S.
"My client has a strong case for defamation, and this has gotten even stronger since you are now shown in detail the falseness of the ad you are running," Boyd Sturges, a lawyer for Von Cannon, wrote in an April 23 letter to Bob Harris, treasurer of Keep Conservatives United.
Harris tersely replied in an email the following day: "The ad is accurate and the jury can decide who's doing the right thing."
On April 25, Von Cannon's campaign filed a notice in Wake County Superior Court to sue the super PAC for libel and slander.
Meanwhile, the campaign fired back with its own ad, accusing Berger of being a "political insider" who is soft on crime and accepts contributions from Democratic-affiliated lobbyists.
Berger's campaign immediately issued a news release denouncing the ads, and Berger demanded in a letter to Von Cannon that it be taken off the air.
"The lies in your ad are defamatory and libelous," Berger wrote in the April 25 letter. "I demand that you immediately remove this ad from the airwaves. If you refuse, then you leave me no choice but to seek legal action to protect my reputation and the voters of this district from your lies."
The ad says that Berger offered a plea deal "to a child rapist to only serve three years."
Berger's campaign says James Lee Dunlap is serving up to 24 years for first-degree sexual offense with a child and indecent liberties with a child. Von Cannon's campaign notes that, in the transcript of Dunlap's plea hearing, defense attorney Elliott Cardwell told Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin that Berger had offered to dismiss three sex offense charges if Dunlap pleaded guilty to three indecent liberties charges. Berger later withdrew the offer when Dunlap asked for time to consider it, Cardwell told the judge.
"As a father of two young sons, I find it personally offensive that Bruce would question my willingness to prosecute a criminal like James Dunlap,” Berger said in a news release. “The truth is that James Dunlap is behind bars for up to 24 years because we prosecuted him and put him there.”
Berger also took exception to a statement in Von Cannon's ad that his campaign was "funded by Democratic lobbyists." The ad shows an invitation for a Berger campaign fundraiser hosted by, among others, Steve Metcalf and Jim Harrell.
Both men are former Democratic lawmakers who are now registered lobbyists. Berger's campaign notes, however, that Harrell is now registered as an unaffiliated voter and that Von Cannon was a registered Democrat until he switched parties last year.
"The truth is, Von Cannon’s campaign is being funded by a life-long Democrat named Bruce Von Cannon,” Berger said in his news release. “Von Cannon’s hypocrisy is stunning.”
Von Cannon told The News & Record in Greensboro in December that he has supported Republican causes and candidates for three decades and was registered as a Democrat only because his parents were lifelong Democrats.
Both ads remain on the air.