Mailer against candidate generates fervor
A year after a local attorney represented a suspect in the vehicular death of a child, the case has become a flashpoint in a Sanford City Council race — a tactic that is being derided both within and outside of the local Republican Party.
Trial lawyer Chas Post, a candidate for the open, at-large seat on Sanford City Council, represented Fernando Ortiz-Soto last October when Ortiz-Soto struck and killed 12-year-old Adam Kempf as the child was boarding a school bus in Coats. According to an article written by a reporter for the Dunn Daily Record, which appeared on the front page of The Herald's Jan. 30 edition, Ortiz-Soto received the maximum possible sentence after pleading guilty to feloniously passing a stopped school bus resulting in a death, receiving a minimum of six months and a maximum of 17 months in prison.
With the municipal election approaching on Nov. 5, a mass mailer paid for by the Lee County Republican Party lambastes Post because of his defense of Ortiz-Soto and other accused criminals.
After quoting from Post's law firm's web site, citing the firm's willingness “to work tirelessly to bring about the most advantageous outcome possible for you” and the types of cases the firm will accept, the mailer concludes: “Chas Post — great for alleged criminals! Not good for Sanford City Council.”
“The last thing this should be is a campaign issue,” Post responded in an emailed statement to The Herald. “I did my job to the best of my ability within the confines of the law, and that's what I'll do as a city councilman if I'm elected.”
The candidate continued, “It's a little sad that we're talking about this court case now, because my whole campaign has been about the issues that face Sanford and how we need to move our city forward. That's what I'd like to get back to.”
Local Republicans attacked Post on the same front in an advertisement submitted to The Herald on Friday, Oct. 18, for publication between Oct. 19 and Election Day. The advertisement contained much of the same material as the mailer, as well as the same pictures of Ortiz-Soto and Kempf, but used harsher language in reference to Ortiz-Soto. It was refused for publication, and soon after, the newspaper received several letters critical of Post and The Herald.
One such letter alleged “oppressive filtering” by The Herald, also accusing the newspaper of “refusing to write about the more questionable business practices of its favored candidates.”
“The same style of favoritism in media had no problem treating [former] Vice President [Dick] Cheney's association with Halliburton as scandalous, but refuses to discuss the clients certain Sanford City Council candidates choose to represent,” the letter, which the writer later retracted, stated.
In another missive, the author wrote, "It appears that Mr. Post’s 'leadership' only extends to the courtroom and not the boardroom."
Herald Publisher Bill Horner III said the advertisement wasn't published because it didn't meet the newspaper's standards "with regard to potentially defamatory statements and unverifiable statements of fact."
“Letters to the editor we received after we turned down the ad criticized us for not publishing what they described as ‘a factual ad,’” Horner said. “I had conversations myself with two of the letter writers, and when they learned the facts of the case, they understood … We vet letters to the editor and ads the same way we try to vet stories for publication.”
Concerning the mailer, Young Republican Chairman Jonathan Fallin said, “I had no idea that was even sent out.” However, he added, in a political campaign, “any time you're in that profession [trial lawyer], somebody is going to use it … good or bad; you see it all the time.”
If he were running against Chas Post, Fallin said he would not have used the same strategy.
“I do think [Post] should have to answer for defending the man; that's just me as a voter,” Fallin said.
Local blogger Sheila Barber, who identifies herself as Independent, referred to the case on her blog, "Fresh Brewed Conservatism" — writing, "Seems [Post] got this guy off with a light sentence" and questioning a perceived lack of coverage in The Herald. (In addition to the story that appeared after the sentencing in January, an article reporting the incident in Coats appeared in The Herald on Oct. 26, 2012.)
Barber's post, dated Oct. 21, continued, "But the questions remain ... Will [Post] represent those of us who agree with the Tea Partiers, those of us who are for smaller government, and who strongly believe in personal responsibility? Will this man really be a leader for Sanford, or just part of a party who defies God on national TV, who believes in giving your tax dollars to Planned Parenthood, who is forcing American citizens to purchase a product or go to jail, or who looks at us locals with disdain if we object to higher taxes and wasteful spending? Your vote can decide."
Contacted Tuesday about the mailer, she said, "I would not put that flier on my blog," adding, "city council is not about Chas Post and the cases he's done."
Lee County Commissioner Kirk Smith declined to comment, and Lee County Republican Party Vice Chairman David Caplan said he was not familiar with the matter and did not return subsequent phone calls. Republican Party at-large officer Ed Page declined comment, deferring remarks to Lee GOP Chairman Charles Staley.
Several phone messages and an email to Staley, who attempted to schedule the aforementioned ad in The Herald, were not returned, and an attempt to speak to him in person at the Lee Republican headquarters was unsuccessful. A number of people on the Lee County Republican Party's email list received a copy of the advertisement by email.
Although both the advertisement and letters to the editor allege that Ortiz-Soto was charged with driving while intoxicated, Kempf's father, Joseph Kempf, said the defendant was charged with passing a stopped school bus causing a death and driving without a license — not an alcohol-related offense.
“Whoever has written this advertisement doesn't even have the facts,” said Kempf, who lives in Chicago. “I look at it as political mudslinging, and it's not something I want my son's reputation based on.”
Speaking on behalf of himself and the Adam Kempf Memorial Fund, the boy's father said his family's loss should reinforce the importance of safety and serve to help others coping with similar situations. He noted that in 2012, Adam was one of four children killed in North Carolina under the same circumstances.
“It's not something that's appropriate for a child's tragedy to be used in a political aspect,” Kempf said. “What we're trying to do is keep his death in a positive aspect and to prevent [such accidents] from happening again.”
Kempf said the Republican Party did not have authorization to use Adam's picture, either from Adam's family or the memorial fund. He said the party is being contacted by mail, but if the image is not used further, legal action probably will not be pursued.
Other letters to the editor received since the mailer hit mailboxes on Saturday have likewise criticized the use of the case as a campaign issue.
“As a newly minted criminal defense attorney myself, I was disappointed and offended by this attempted character assassination by the local Republican party of those who dedicate their lives and careers to practice in this field,” argued one letter writer. “It’s not always easy, especially when many in the court of public opinion dispense with the notion of 'innocent until proven guilty' … .”
Another letter stated, "Mr. Post did his job. The Republican Party would like you to believe he did it not just well, but too well. What any of this has to do with his ability to serve the people of Sanford is a mystery. The sponsors of this ad should be ashamed."
Post characterized the mailer as "absolutely misleading" and added, "It’s unfortunate that the folks who put it together twisted the facts the way they did." Overall, he said, "This is what prevents a lot of good people from getting involved in public service."
Some within the Republican Party ranks also expressed aversion to the mailer and advertisement. Max Dolan, the Republican challenging Post in the election, called the approach “totally inappropriate” and “not something I would do.”
“That's just not my style,” Dolan said. “I'm the style that wants to debate the issues. [Post] was doing his job, and it sounds like in this case, he did it well.”
Dolan said he has received several calls from citizens who are angry and upset about the mailer. Although he disagrees with his party on this point, he said he still identifies with the Republicans' conservative values.
“You've got two choices, Democrat or Republican; it's got to be one or the other if you're seeking office and serious about getting it,” he said.
This is the first time local municipal elections have been partisan, following a bill passed in the N.C. General Assembly earlier this year.
Councilman Charles Taylor, who identifies as a Republican, said, “it's a shame politics had to take the dirty turn it has. I thought this was done in distaste.”
When he sought office in 2007, Taylor said he competed in a “gentlemen's race” with opponent Dan Harrington.
“It's one thing to attack someone's ideas; it's another thing to pull innocent victims into a race they have nothing to do with … ,” Taylor said. “It's time for the Republican leadership to take to heart how they are representing the thoughts and ideas of others. This, in my mind, is a big misstep.”