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D.C. activist and Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten sued At-Large Councilmember David Catania for defamation on Thursday, making good on his promise to do so if the mayoral candidate refused to retract campaign statements that implicate Moten in an alleged illegal spending effort on behalf of Councilmember Muriel Bowser, the Ward 4 Democrat who leads in various polls going into Tuesday’s election.
Moten alleges that Catania campaign manager Ben Young “maliciously” distributed “false, defamatory, and disparaging messages” about Moten via email to over 100,000 people, Internet message boards, and “several other channels.”
Moten names Catania personally in his lawsuit, along with Young and campaign treasurer Randall Kelly, and claims the email blast has harmed his reputation and ability to pursue “professional practices” that depend on his reputation for “competence, credibility, and honesty.” He alleges that the defendants “deliberately, and with actual malice, disseminated false, defamatory, and malicious statements” that refer to Moten as part of a “shadow campaign” and a group that violated D.C. law.
“The objective of these activities was to destroy the Plaintiffs’ good reputation and to make them objects of ridicule, hatred, and personal attack and be used as ponds and as collateral damage in a desperate smear campaign to try to pull of a miracle and win the mayoral race in the District of Columbia,” the lawsuit states. Lawyer Johnny Barnes sent the Catania campaign a letter last week on the day the email blast went out, demanding a “retraction, correction and an apology” to Moten for “the untruths you published in an electronic communication this instant date,” but Moten filed the lawsuit himself.
The email blast and other postings bearing the “Catania For Mayor” logo came in reaction to red-white-and-blue signs that recently appeared in wards 7 and 8, accusing Catania of waging a “war against the poor.” The signs were attributed to a group identifying itself as “DC Citizens Against Catania,” which the Washington Post reported did not provide any indication of who paid for the signs, as city election laws require.
Moten has denied any affiliation with the group, as has the Bowser campaign.
The Catania campaign email didn’t not refer to Moten by name, but it pointed to a “person [who] co-founded an organization found guilty of misusing city grant funding to purchase two high-end SUV’s,” a clear reference to Moten and a lawsuit by the city that alleges Moten understated compensation from the Peaceoholics on federal tax forms in order to receive grants from the District’s troubled Children’s Youth Investment Trust Corporations. (Moten is asking a D.C. judge to dismiss it.)
“District residents deserve better than more dirty tricks and illegal activity,” Young wrote in the email, referring to the emergence of the mysterious signs. “Let’s finally put an end to business as usual at City Hall.”
In comments last week to Washington City Paper, Young invited Moten to “go ahead and tell the world how much you love Muriel Bowser.”
Moten responded this week by reiterating his demand for an apology on Twitter.
He tells City Paper he never got one, and that he even ran into Catania on his way to the courthouse on Thursday. According to Moten, Catania declined to apologize and pointed out that he did not identify Moten by name in the email blast. (Alas, it appears neither of them took the opportunity to use the phrase “see you in court.”)
In addition to filing a lawsuit, Moten released a video in which D.C. rapper Big Wax provides a soundtrack over a group of Ward 8 residents mocking Catania and urging people to vote for Bowser. The video carries a disclaimer that Moten paid for it and is not affiliated with any campaign.
The campaign signs that sparked the Catania-Moten feud are part of a separate controversy. Yango Sawyer, an advocate for ex-offenders’ rights, has taken responsibility for the “DC Citizens Against Catania” signs and a batch of T-shirts and placards that surfaced at a rally outside Anacostia High School on Oct. 16, the Post reported. Ward 1 activist Marie Drissel has since filed a complaint to the Office of Campaign Finance accusing Sawyer and two of his colleagues of making unreported “in-kind contributions” to Bowser’s campaign. A hearing on the OCF complaint was scheduled for this Monday, and an OCF spokesman says the matter is still open. Sawyer has declined to comment.
The Catania campaign doesn’t seem too worried about Moten. Informed of the lawsuit on Thursday, Young said the matter is of “little significance.”
“This is a despicable and illegal shadow campaign on behalf of Muriel Bowser by her friends and supporters, many of whom have defrauded the government of thousands if not millions of dollars,” Young said.
Read the complaint below.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally said Johnny Barnes was representing Moten. In fact, Moten is representing himself.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery