Former congressional candidate Casey Askar filed a civil defamation lawsuit against Rep.-elect Byron Donalds.
The legal action came months after Donalds won a crowded Republican primary in Florida’s 19th Congressional District. Askar came in third place.
The primary election saw a dirty trick pulled that day, when a sophisticated text message was blasted to voters in the district claiming Donalds had dropped out of the race. The texts in question included photographs and a link to video from a previous run for Congress in 2012.
Immediately, Donalds went on Facebook and pointed in a particular direction. “A text message just went out from a rival campaign, and I know whose campaign it is,” Donalds said. “This is the Casey Askar campaign.”
Now, Askar said the accusation was made without evidence. His lawsuit, first reported by NBC-2, seeks $30,000 in damages from Donalds.
That amount is roughly the same as a late expenditure by Honesty America to a North Forty Myers firm specializing in text messages. The firm and that political committee are closely tied to individuals in Askar’s campaign, and the super PAC was behind a series of negative attacks against Donalds and other candidates.
But Askar told NBC-2 he had nothing to do with the text messages incorrectly alleging Donalds had dropped out of the race. In his legal complaint, he said Donalds defeated Askar only by a massive negative campaign backed by a large Washington-based group, an apparent reference to Club For Growth.
The smears impacted Askar’s private life, the suit alleges.
“Despite his efforts to clear his name, Donalds’ intentional and malicious campaign of lies began to seriously damage Askar’s credibility and reputation and they began to have a negative effect on his campaign as voters were led to believe that the lies promulgated by Donalds and his surrogates were true,” the lawsuit argues.
The complaint lays out a scenario in which Donalds conspired to launch the text messages himself as a “final, illegal act of election interference.”
The complaint compares Donalds to Jussie Smollett, an actor who alleged a hate crime against himself in Chicago later believed suspect. The lawsuit alleged Donalds used obscure knowledge of the political history of Jeff Roe, an Askar consultant, and used that to attach Donalds to a text campaign he could pin on the rival campaign.
Donalds declined to comment on the lawsuit. Instead, he sent a meme showing NBA star Kobe Bryant shaking his head and mouthing the word “soft.”
The day the text messages were sent, Askar’s campaign sent Florida Politics a statement denying involvement. That suggested Donalds himself may be behind the messages, or that another rival campaign was involved.
“Byron Donalds is 100% wrong,” read the statement from Askar’s campaign. “The Askar campaign has sent 0 text messages today. We haven’t even seen the text to which he is referring. This is either Byron Donalds’ weak attempt at a last-minute political smear on Casey Askar, or it is the work of the political hacks on Dane Eagle’s team.
“Either way, they’re showing their true colors — they must be terrified of Casey to drop this in the final hours of the campaign.”
Eagle, now executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, came in second place in the primary. His campaign team also denied any involvement.
Askar later said the FBI should investigate the incident.
Vendors working with Donalds said his campaign had no role in sending out the texts, and in fact had to respond rapidly on the day of the election to the stunt with their own rapid text blast. Eagle’s campaign also said it seemed ridiculous the Donalds campaign would do something so risky as send misleading messages about their own status.
Donalds ultimately won the race by 777 votes.