Aron suit alienates her own party Defeated candidate says Brock defamed her in '94 campaign

February 18, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Ruthann Aron says all she wants is to clear her name.

But by suing the former U.S. senator who opposed her in a 1994 Senate race, Ms. Aron stands accused of breaking a cardinal rule of Republican politics, has alienated many party regulars and sparked a debate over whether negative political advertising has gone too far.

Ms. Aron is arguing in Anne Arundel Circuit Court this month that William E. Brock defamed her by saying she was "convicted by a jury of fraud more than once" in a news conference a week before the 1994 primary.

Ms. Aron, who had been sued for fraud and settled the case for $175,000, says Mr. Brock's use of the word "convicted" at a Rockville news conference Sept. 7, 1994, implied criminal conduct that cost her the election and her reputation.

The case -- being heard by the same judge in the same courtroom where Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey tried to reverse her 1994 election defeat -- is expected to go to the jury of five women and one man Friday or early next week.

Ms. Aron said she hopes the suit will discourage negative advertising and encourage more qualified people to run for office.

"Going after someone's record is one thing, but accusing them of being a criminal? A line has to be drawn somewhere," Ms. Aron said last week.

But those in the political arena say the case, being heard by Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., could have the opposite effect.

"It's going to wreak havoc on trying to get people involved in the political process," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the state Republican Party. The GOP supported Mr. Brock in 1994.

Ms. Terhes declined to discuss the specifics of the suit, but said if Ms. Aron is successful it will make it more difficult to recruit candidates.

"Along with weighing the costs of a campaign and emotional toll on the family, people are going to have another thing to be concerned about, 'Will I be sued,' " she said.

"The only people who are going to win from this are going to be the lawyers," Ms. Terhes said.

Robert M. Stern, co-director of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the case could make candidates more careful about distorting an opponent's record.

"Why should a candidate be allowed to lie and get away with it? If you can show the other person actually lied, you should be able to win," he said.

Ms. Aron, a Potomac lawyer and real estate developer, has declined to say whether she might run for office again.

But Republican Anne Arundel County Councilman William C. Mulford II, a former prosecutor who has listened to some of the testimony, said Ms. Aron has crippled any chance of winning future GOP support.

"Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment said, 'Don't criticize other Republicans.' It's just considered poor taste," he said.

Mr. Mulford, who acknowledged supporting Mr. Brock in 1994, ** said just about every candidate is targeted in some way by opponents, from being called names to having signs and billboards defaced.

"She has to realize that politics is not a gentle game," he said.

Ms. Aron's lawyers hope her concerns about negative political ,, advertising are shared by the jury.

"We believe this case will set a reference point for future election campaigns," Geoffrey Gitner, one of her lawyers, told jurors in opening statements last week.

Lawyers for Mr. Brock, a former secretary of labor and senator, argue that his comments do not meet the legal standard for "actual malice" that is required of public figures to prove defamation.

Two lawsuits

To win, Ms. Aron must show that Mr. Brock either knew the statement about her being "convicted" was false or that he showed reckless disregard for its truth.

T. Joseph Touhey, Mr. Brock's co-counsel, said he also hopes to convince the jury that defamation did not occur -- because what Mr. Brock said was essentially true.

"A jury did find this lady guilty of fraud, and to the average person, it is reasonable to use this kind of language, to say, mistakenly or not, that she was convicted," Mr. Touhey said.

Ms. Aron was found guilty of civil fraud by a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury in a lawsuit filed by her former realty partners in 1984 over profits from a Rockville real estate transaction. But the judgment was vacated on appeal after she agreed to pay $175,000 to settle the case.

In 1990, she paid $175,000to settle a federal lawsuit filed in a dispute over profits from the sale of a 17-acre tract near Andrews Air Force Base.

In testimony so far, lawyers for Ms. Aron have questioned Mr. Brock's private pollster and several of his campaign advisers, trying to show his strategists targeted Ms. Aron as she narrowed his lead in the polls during the election's final weeks.

Alex Ray, a 20-year friend of Mr. Brock who was paid $6,000 for his work on the campaign, admitted to advising Mr. Brock to "go after" Ms. Aron and to writing a Sept. 1, 1994, memo telling his friend, "I think her candidacy has to be brought down a peg or two."

But Mr. Ray also testified that Ms. Aron caused her own defeat with her own negative advertisements.

"She broke one of the principle rules of politics, you never start out by attacking your opponent," Mr. Ray said.

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