In her unsuccessful campaign to unseat Tim Shaw from the Orange County Board of Education, one of Paulette Chaffee’s central messages was Shaw and the rest of the OCBE majority wasted time and money on “frivolous lawsuits.”
Shaw defeated Chaffee by more than 16 points, 49.96% to 33.39.
Now Chaffee is suing Shaw, claiming she was defamed by two Shaw campaign mailers spotlighting her being charged by the OC District Attorney for two misdemeanor counts of petty theft for stealing campaigns signs in 2018, when she was running for Fullerton City Council. Chaffee was caught
The signs read “No Paulette – Carpetbagger,” a reference to Chaffee moving from her home into a condo in District 5 in order run for council. Fullerton businessman and political activist Tony Bushala paid for 150 of the signs and had them placed around District 5.
According to a source, virtually all of the 150 “No Paulette – Carpetbagger” signs that Bushala put up were stolen or removed in short order.
Chaffee ultimately pled guilty to the two theft charges. As part of the plea agreement, Chaffee was required to pay Bushala $20 in restitution, $150 into the Victim Witness Emergency Fund and $150 in state restitution, and perform 60 hours of community service within 90 days. If she complied with those punishments, the OCDA agreed to consider dismissing the charges “in the interest of justice” – which is ultimately what happened.
In her lawsuit, Chaffee, who poured $280,000 of her own money into her failed campaign, alleges that Shaw “damaged her with false and malicious statements made in mailers sent to thousands of people.”
During this year’s primary election, Shaw’s campaign sent out two mailers hitting her on the sign thefts. Here is one of them:
Chaffee’s lawsuit does not deny that in two separate instances (at minimum) she stole Bushala’s campaign signs. Nor does it deny that she pled guilty to those thefts – which are misdemeanors. Indeed, she agreed to pay Bushala restitution for the stolen signs, pay other fines and perform 60 hours of community service – not things a person does if innocent of the charge.
Her argument is that calling her a convicted thief is “demonstrably false” because she was not actually convicted. Her argument is that since the case was ultimately dismissed, then she was not “convicted” of any crimes.
In other words, Mrs. Chaffee doesn’t deny being a thief – she denies being a convicted thief.
Chaffee has a tall legal mountain to climb.
After losing an Assembly race to James Gallagher in 2014, James Reed sued Gallagher for defamation, citing a Gallagher campaign TV ad attacking Reed as an “unscrupulous lawyer” and “a crook.” Gallagher responded with a motion to dismiss under the state’s anti-SLAPP law.
Reed lost. An appeals court applied the doctrine of rhetorical hyperbole to shield the Gallagher, ruling that the characterizations of Reed as an “unscrupulous lawyer” and “a crook” are classic rhetorical hyperbole, not a provable false statement of fact.
The court also noted voter expect exaggerated attacks in the context an election campaign: “Here, the challenged statement was made during the heat of a political campaign, a context in which the audience would naturally anticipate the use of rhetorical hyperbole.”
There’s also the political question as to the wisdom of publicly reminding voters about the scandal that ended Paulette Chaffee’s Fullerton council campaign when her husband is in a nip-and-tuck battle for re-election to the OC Board of Supervisors.