Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Lee sues N.C. Senate race opponent over alleged defamatory ad

Marcia Morgan’s ad, “Serving Others” accuses her opponent Michael Lee of using his position for personal gain and helping local developers through his law firm.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The local N.C. Senate race is heating up after incumbent Sen. Michael Lee filed a lawsuit Monday against his opponent for alleged libelous advertising.

The Republican seated senator for district 7 submitted a complaint to the New Hanover County Superior Court Monday and a motion for a temporary restraining order against Democrat Marcia Morgan.

“As an elected leader from this community, I’ve tried to be as responsive and helpful as possible when assisting constituents with issues or listening to complaints,” Lee stated in a press release. “I’ve learned to have thick skin. But when my opponent, Marcia Morgan, attacks and defames me, my law firm, and my law partners, I must defend myself and set the record straight.”

Titled “Serving Others,” the ad, released around Sept. 28 by Morgan’s campaign, states:

“As a former teacher and Army colonel, I’ve always been focused on serving others. That’s how it should be for leaders in Raleigh. But Michael Lee doesn’t see it that way. Lee used his political position to serve real estate clients. Lee got rezoning and special use permits for big developers against the advice of city planners, sticking us with overdevelopment, higher living costs and more traffic. That’s not leadership. That’s self-interest. When I get to Raleigh, I’ll never pander to greedy special interests.”

Morgan’s campaign released in a statement to media that the she stands behind the ad’s messaging and more so delivering to voters “facts” on who really represents them.

“As I travel the district and talk to voters, I hear a lot of concern about the overdevelopment and traffic in our county. Michael Lee, in his law practice, has been a part of many of the development deals that have caused this out-of-control growth and burdened our roadways — voters deserve to know that when they head to the polls in November. I stand behind the facts in my ad and welcome the opportunity to defend them through the legal process.”

Lee, along with his law firm and legal representation from Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard LLP, also filed cease and desist letters to WECT, WSFX and WWAY. The mailings ask the stations to immediately stop airing the political ads.

As a practicing attorney, Lee helped found the firm Lee and Kaess, PLCC in 2012. He handles cases specifically tied to land use, zoning and commercial real estate. Morgan’s ad accuses Lee of using his public office to benefit his and his law firms’ clients.

“The advertisement is defamatory because it on its face — or at a minimum by implication — it falsely charges Mr. Lee with committing felonies and impeaches him and the law firm in their trade and profession,” the submitted motion states.

The lawsuit details the advertisement in particular insinuates bribery or improper conduct from the senator. Documents say it alleges Lee uses his position for personal gain, in turn violating numerous N.C. State Bar rules of professional conduct.

Morgan cites a May 2, 2018 Star News story, a May 3, 2018 Port City Daily story and a September 6, 2017 Port City Daily story all regarding public hearings for proposed developments.

Lee’s law firm represented The Avenue developer The Carroll Companies at a May 2 Wilmington Planning Commissioner meeting. The Avenue is a mixed-use development planned for Military Cutoff Road.

The developers of The Landing at Lewis Creek Estates also retained Lee’s law firm for representation during a New Hanover County planning board meeting. The 85-acre development on Gordon Road was slated for 400 new residential units.

The motion submitted by Lee, his law firm and attorneys calls for Morgan and her committee to immediately stop publishing the advertisement, pay at least $25,000 in damages and enter a jury trial.

The Democratic seat opposing Lee has had a tumultuous run leading up to the 2022 campaign. Candidate Jason Minnicozzi dropped out of the race in June citing lack of financial resources. The withdrawal coincided with accusations from a woman blaming Minnicozzi of exploiting his power to obtain personal information.

Minnicozzi, a public defender in New Hanover County, allegedly reached out to a woman who appeared in court for an assault case, locating her name through court records. According to screenshots shared with Port City Daily, Minnicozzi messaged her on Facebook in 2015. The woman came forward publicly when she saw he was running for election.

About a week later, the New Hanover County Democratic Party nominated retired Army colonel Marcia Morgan to take his place.

Morgan has run twice before in North Carolina: in 2018 for the House seat for District 19, in which she lost to Ted Davis, and again in 2020, losing to Charlie Miller.

Lee first served as Senator from 2014 through 2018, until he was unseated by Harper Peterson. The Republican took back his seat from Democrat Senator Peterson in the 2020 election.

A press release from Lee’s office states a hearing regarding the political ad will likely occur within the next 24 hours.


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