Benton threatens to sue Probst over mailer statements

Mudslinging in the Senate race between Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and his challenger, Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, has reached new heights (or perhaps a new low).

Probst said he was contacted on Friday by Benton’s lawyer, who threatened to sue Probst over statements made in recent political mailers. You can read the cease and desist letter here. The lawyer says damages to Benton’s reputation exceed $1 million.

Probst released this response over the weekend.

The letter by Benton’s lawyer mentions three statements made against him this election season. Probst’s mail pieces have attacked the number of Senate votes Benton has missed (299 in the past four legislative sessions), and the kerfuffle that occurred when Benton was the Washington State Republican Party chairman more than 10 years ago. Benton found himself in hot water back then when he tried to move the state Republican headquarters to Olympia, according to several media reports.

The cease and desist letter also accuses Probst’s campaign of saying that Benton has made more than $1 million as a lawmaker. That claim was made by a left-leaning group independent of Probst’s campaign.

In salary alone, Benton, who was elected to the Senate in 1996, has made more than $586,000. In addition to salary, lawmakers also may charge the state to cover the cost of cell phone expenses, printing and postage associated with constituent outreach, and cost of living expenses (per diem) while they are on official business. Since 1999, Benton has spent more than $555,000 on those types of expenses, according to expense summary reports kept by Senate administration.

If Benton does sue Probst over statements made in Probst’s mailers, will the lawsuit gain any traction? Not likely. Political speech is heavily protected in Washington state.

On Sunday, Probst called the cease and desist letter a threatening and bullying “political tactic.”

Benton and Probst have both signed the League of Women Voters of Clark County’s clean campaign pledge.

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