Lobbyist Vicki Iseman has avoided television interviews and public appearances since her name appeared in a February 21, 2008, story in the New York Times that linked her in various ways to Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
Even now, after she filed a federal defamation-of-character suit seeking $27 million in damages from the Times, Iseman’s case will not be a Washington spectacle. Her lawyers have filed the suit in Richmond. And Iseman has passed over all the big-name lawyers in Washington to hire one from Lexington, Virginia, and another from Richmond.
Several local lawyers say Iseman is taking a gamble. Her lawyers may have been seeking a judge and jury not sympathetic to the Times. But courts in Virginia have historically looked on plaintiffs’ actions with more skepticism, not less. And Richmond was hardly a hotbed of McCain support. In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama received 79 percent of the city’s vote to McCain’s 20 percent. In surrounding Henrico County, Obama carried more than 55 percent of the vote.
Iseman’s main attorney is Rodney Smolla, dean of Washington & Lee University School of Law and an expert in libel and defamation-of-character cases. His local counsel in Richmond will be W. Coleman Allen Jr. A graduate of Yale and the University of Virginia law school, Allen is said to be a strong negotiator who tries to avoid lengthy trials—a clue perhaps as to how this case will end.
Allen’s firm’s detailed advertisements for its dog-bite practice have caught some lawyers’ attention. “Most often,” the firm’s Web site declares, “it is dogs that bite people.” Even the New York Times, which would argue that it’s news only when man bites dog, would probably agree.
Times insiders say that more than money could be on the line in the Iseman case. Her 36-page complaint cites the comments of the paper’s ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, who criticized the Times article for suggesting an improper relationship without providing sufficient proof.
If the words of the Times’s own ombudsman can be used to impeach the integrity of the paper, some staffers wonder if the Times’s lawyers will react by preventing such candor by its ombudsman.