The limits of campaign mud-slinging Aron's suit against Brock over '94 primary could break new ground

February 25, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien

A CASE BEING heard in an Annapolis courtroom this month could spell out new rules for candidates running for public office in Maryland, clarify the meanings of legal terms like defamation and spark debate about free speech in political campaigns.

But the case of Ruthann Aron vs. William E. Brock III has so far focused on who started the name-calling.

Ms. Aron filed suit against Mr. Brock in 1994, accusing him of defaming her when he called a press conference a week before the 1994 Senate primary and said she had been "convicted" of fraud by a jury.

The case is being tried before Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr. -- the same judge who dismissed Ellen Sauerbrey's suit to overturn results of the 1994 governor's race.

The trial is developing into both a post-mortem of Mr. Brock's campaign and a political version of two kids arguing to their teacher about which one started a fight in the schoolyard.

Ms. Aron has accused Mr. Brock of conspiring with his campaign staff to torpedo her candidacy by labeling her a criminal.

Mr. Brock says Ms. Aron goaded him into reluctantly slinging mud by lying about his business dealings.

Mr. Brock, a former secretary of labor and U.S. senator from Tennessee who lives in Annapolis, defeated Ms. Aron in the 1994 Republican primary, only to lose the general election to Sen. Paul Sarbanes.

But Ms. Aron alleges that Mr. Brock stepped beyond the bounds of acceptable campaign practices at a Sept. 7, 1994, press conference by saying what he said.

"She's been found guilty, convicted by jury, of fraud. More than once," Mr. Brock told reporters. "She's had to pay enormous -- hundreds of thousands of dollars, in fines."

Ms. Aron, a Potomac real estate developer, was sued twice by former partners in real estate deals and was found liable by a jury of fraud in one case before the verdict was vacated when she agreed to pay $175,000 as a settlement. She and a partner paid another $175,000 settlement to resolve another suit.

But Ms. Aron said when Mr. Brock used the term "convicted" it branded her a criminal, ruined her reputation and cost her the election.

"All she wants is her reputation back," says Geoffrey Gitner, Ms. Aron's lawyer.

Coming at a time when several presidential candidates in New Hampshire and Iowa have been attacked each other over negative campaign tactics, the trial has attracted considerable media attention.

Ms. Aron, who blasted Mr. Brock with her own campaign advertisements, says her suit is an attempt to "draw a line in the sand" to discourage future political campaigns from becoming too negative.

Ms. Aron's legal team is hoping jurors will be turned off by negative campaign tactics in general and by Mr. Brock's specifically.

Mr. Brock's lawyers hope to show that Ms. Aron dished out the dirt and should have expected some in return.

Mr. Brock said Ms. Aron was out to ruin his reputation when she showed up at his press conference and accused him of being involved in a fraudulent investment scheme in Pennsylvania.

"That was just an outrageous lie," Mr. Brock told jurors.

Mr. Brock says he told reporters about Ms. Aron's being sued for fraud only in response to that allegation, which was repeated to him by a reporter as he was leaving the press conference.

"I was sputtering," he admitted.

In two weeks of testimony, much of the case has focused on the details of Mr. Brock's 1994 campaign, including the strategies involved in buying television time for commercials, the significance of polls in a primary, the role of a press secretary and the art of fund raising.

Evidence has included Mr. Brock's television and radio advertisements, a television report of the press conference at issue and an audio tape of it. Newspaper articles describing it have been projected on a video screen so they can be read over and over.

Opposing lawyers have sparred over details such as which dictionary best defines meanings of words like "convict" and "guilty," and whether the television report of the press conference should be shown to jurors in its entirety.

But when the trial is completed, it will be decided by a jury made up of a defense analyst, a graphic artist, a police officer, an accountant, a homemaker and a business manager, who will decide based on everything they have seen.

This jury of four women and two men is as likely to be turned off by Sandra Brock, Mr. Brock's wife, inadvertently taking a call on her cellular phone in the courtroom, as much as by anything that was said on the witness stand.

Images, like television advertisements, mean everything.

So it may well come down to who started slinging the mud first.

Ms. Aron says it was Mr. Brock. Mr. Brock says it was Ms. Aron.

Mr. Brock says that he only broke his own 11th Commandment -- never attack a fellow Republican -- reluctantly because Ms. Aron's negative advertisements were going to make it more difficult for him to win the general election.

And in explaining himself, he used an earthy image intended to stick in jurors' minds.

"I wanted to shed myself of the slime that was going on," he said.

9- Dennis O'Brien is a reporter for The Sun.

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