Rep. Devin Nunes’ attorney last month demanded that his 2018 Democratic political opponent pressure an anonymous social media writer to delete comments on Twitter that mock Republican Nunes “day and night.”
Andrew Janz, the Fresno County prosecutor who ran against Nunes in 2018, interpreted the Oct. 11 letter from Nunes’ attorney Steven Biss as a threat to sue him.
“This is the first step in a lawsuit, to send a demand letter like this,” Janz said.
Nunes in March filed a lawsuit in Virginia against Twitter, a Republican political strategist and two anonymous writers behind social media accounts known as Devin Nunes’ Cow and Devin Nunes’ Mom alleging they conspired to defame him during Nunes’ 2018 re-election campaign.
Nunes’ letter to Janz focuses on the anonymous account known as Devin Nunes’ Cow, which has almost 630,000 followers and frequently publishes appeals to support Nunes’ political opponents. Prior to Nunes’ lawsuit, it had about 1,000 followers.
Nunes and Steven Biss, Nunes’ lawyer, make clear in the Oct. 11 letter that they believe Janz is either behind or controlling the anonymous author of Devin Nunes’ Cow.
“As you well know, for over two years, Mr. Nunes has been maliciously harassed, stalked, bullied online, threatened and egregiously defamed on Twitter by the user or users who post day and night, through the anonymous Twitter account, @DevinCow,” Biss wrote.
Biss demands that Janz make the author of the cow account to stop tweeting “false and defamatory statements” about Nunes, to retract those tweets, apologize to Nunes and his family and delete the account within a day of the public apology.
“You are legally, ethically and morally responsible to act now,” Biss writes.
Cites laws banning electronic threats
Biss’s letter cites California state laws that forbid using electronic devices to harass someone in such a way that causes the victims to fear for their safety, as well as a federal law that forbids threatening government officials with physical harm.
In a response written to Biss from Janz’s lawyer, Andrew Harris Werbrock, Janz rejects Biss’ demands and accuses Nunes of trying to silence his critics and “punish his political opponents.”
Janz “does not control the account, or the content of its communications, and cannot cause it to issue a retraction or an apology, or to dissolve,” Werbrock wrote. “Second, even if he could cause the account to issue a retraction, he would not, as your letter does not state any valid basis for doing so.”
Mari Harren, a spokeswoman for Janz, said Janz’s campaign is considering filing ethics complaints with the California and Virginia State Bars over the letter because Biss discusses alleged criminal conduct in the letter to the Democrat.
“It’s our understanding that this wouldn’t be Mr. Biss’s first ethics violation,” Harren said, referencing a year-long suspension on Biss about a decade ago.
Biss did not respond to a request for comment.
Janz in January opened a voter rights organization called the Voter Protection Project. Janz in March announced that he would use the organization in part to raise money to help the anonymous writer behind Devin Nunes’ Cow pay legal fees.
The organization paid $3,000 to the Hawkins Law Firm in Virginia earlier this year, which spokesman Matt Liebman said was paid on behalf of legal services for the author of Devin Nunes’ Cow.
The anonymous author of the Twitter account said in a a written statement to McClatchy that he or she discourages others from writing comments that would cause Nunes to fear for his or his family’s safety.
“I have always kept clear boundaries against physical threats and discussions of (Nunes’) wife or children,” the anonymous author said. “I have often told The Herd that those things are off limits, as well as scolded many for stepping over the line.”
Janz said he knows the identity of the anonymous writer behind the cow account but denied having any control over the account. On Monday, Janz said he did not know the writer until after Nunes filed the lawsuit.
Nunes’ fundraising takes off
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said Nunes’ request would likely fail in court.
“I’m not sure what the legal theory is, and in all seriousness, you can be aware of a fake Twitter account, but if you don’t control it, you have no legal authority over it,” she said.
She wrote an opinion article for NBC in September in which she said Nunes’ lawsuit against Twitter raises fair questions about the responsibility of social media companies.
But, she said the request in the Janz letter had less merit. “This is just bizarre to basically say, ‘You need to tell your neighbor to stop talking so badly about me.’”
Nunes kept his congressional seat in 2018 by his narrowest margin of victory during his time in Congress, about five percentage points. Janz raised $9 million for the race and Nunes brought in $12 million.
Nunes’ fundraising has been even stronger in the 2020 cycle — he has about $7 million in cash on hand, according to the latest campaign finance report, and there’s another year to go.
If Nunes decided to sue Janz, it would be Nunes’ sixth lawsuit filed this year. In addition to the lawsuit against Twitter, he’s also suing McClatchy, the parent company of his hometown paper the Fresno Bee; political research firm Fusion GPS and progressive watchdog group Campaign for Accountability; and journalist Ryan Lizza, who last year reported that Nunes’ family farm had moved to Iowa.
He also sued a retired farmer from his southern San Joaquin Valley district and Democratic groups who unsuccessfully challenged Nunes’ designation as a farmer on the 2018 ballot. Nunes’ campaign dropped that lawsuit, filed in California, shortly after filing it.