Swalwell hires lawyer, threatens to sue Stark

Eric Swalwell, the fellow Democrat challenging 20-term incumbent Rep. Pete Stark in the newly drawn 15th Congressional District, has retained a lawyer to demand that Stark retract a public accusation of bribery that he leveled at Swalwell during a candidates’ forum last week.

Swalwell’s campaign announced Tuesday it has retained attorney James Wagstaffe of San Francisco – a renowned defamation lawyer – who will send a letter to Stark on Wednesday asking for a retraction of the accusation or else face legal action.

Stark’s campaign consultant, Alex Tourk, hasn’t returned e-mails asking for evidence to substantiate the claim Stark made during the League of Women Voters of the Eden Area’s candidates forum one week ago in Hayward City Hall. Swalwell on Tuesday provided a video clip of Stark, at a town-hall meeting with constituents this past Saturday, saying that Swalwell’s Federal Election Commission reports and personal financial disclosures back up the bribery claim:

“My latest FEC filing is public as well as my Form 700s that contain information about my personal finances since being elected to the Dublin City Council. Again, there is no proof to these outrageous and untrue allegations,” Swalwell said Tuesday. “It is unfortunate that Congressman Stark is lying to the voters. This outright lie is an escalation in bizarre behavior from Congressman Stark, and we deserve better.”

I scanned Swalwell’s filings late last week and didn’t find anything like what Stark described. But maybe I missed something; feel free to double-check me by clicking below for Swalwell’s:

    2010 Form 700 personal financial disclosure
    2011 Form 700 personal financial disclosure
    2011 third-quarter FEC campaign finance report
    2011 fourth-quarter FEC campaign finance report
    2012 first-quarter FEC campaign finance report

UPDATE @ 9:44 A.M. WEDNESDAY: There is one thing I missed in Swalwell’s 1st-quarter 2012 FEC report: Pete Stark’s ex-wife, Carolyn Wente Layton of Livermore, gave $250 to Swalwell’s campaign last month; her brother Philip Wente gave $2,000.

UPDATE @ 4:27 P.M. WEDNESDAY: Stark has apologized, saying he “misspoke.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • JohnW

    I wonder if there are any cases in history where a Congressional candidate has sued another for slander and won, even when the claims show as much reckless disregard for the truth as the ones Stark made against Swalwell.

  • moderate voter

    The story line on Pete Stark is that he’s gone from being a little colorful and a bit eccentric to being just plain nutty. Most believe he has not aged well, he is really showing his 81 years. In fact, he has become the butt of jokes in Washington DC with lobbyists, staffers, and even other members. He’s not even taken seriously anymore.
    This ridiculous charge he made agaisn’t Eric Swalwell – a squeaky clean Alameda County Prosecutor – was so patently absurd it was just laughable. There is not one shred of truth to the charge – none – it was just ridiculous he would make such a charge.
    I recall awhile back Stark was passed over for the Chairmanship of Ways and Means, he should have gotten the job because of his senority. But the leadership didn’t want him to have it due to his nuttiness, had he gotten the gavel they knew the wacky and cantankerous Stark would shoot his mouth off and become national news. So they decided instead to only allow him to chair a subcomittee, they wanted to “hide” Stark, like a stepchild with three eyes you hide in the attic when company comes over. I’m sorry, that’s the cold, hard truth about Stark, he’s no longer eccentric and colorful, he’s just plain nutty. I don’t think these hot shot consultants Stark has hired to run his election campaign can hide this, people can see it.

  • Derek_W

    Thanks for the links Josh, the FEC reports are always fun to look at!

    It looks like Stark misspoke when he said “hundreds of thousands in bribes from developers” and really meant to say “$150 in legally disclosed Oakland Raider tickets”?

    Also interesting is a side-by-side comparison of who gets what from where. Swalwell’s contributors almost all seem to live in addresses within the district, while Stark’s (http://query.nictusa.com/cgi-bin/dcdev/forms/C00020974/776482/sa/ALL) all seem to come from addresses in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and from insurance and bank PACs. Methinks Oakland Raider tickets are a little more “East Bay” than the legal forms of bribery Stark got from people and organizations on the East Coast!

  • JohnW


    “Looks like Stark misspoke…really meant to say $150 in…Raider tickets.”

    Yup, it’s easy to see how those might be confused in the heat of debate!

    Stark’s charges are a gift to Swalwell’s campaign.

  • Fremont Resident

    Huh? So much about this video just rubs me the wrong way. Stark says that the money he is having to raise in this race could be used to help other Democrats if he didn’t have a challenger? This may very well be true, but what about the $1.2 million that Ro Khana raised? If Stark would have stepped down and let him run, surely some of this money could have helped democrats in more competitive districts. Him saying this just makes him sound like he thinks he is entitled to this seat. To me it’s like hearing “Why does someone think they can run against ME in this seat? This is my seat, there is no point in running for it!”. He also doesn’t seem to be that well acquainted with the issues, he didn’t even know if California was gaining a seat in the Congress (we’re not)! As much as I’ve liked Pete Stark over the years (I was thrilled when someone on his staff assisted us in getting a White House tour a few years ago), I just can’t see myself voting for him this fall!

    Also, should he be talking this much about campaign issues during a Town Hall paid for by taxpayers?

    Just my $0.02.

  • CuteStuff

    Swalwell, as a lawyer, should know he has no way to win a case – in Sullivan v New York Times, the Supreme Court outlined a 3 part malice test for libel/slander. The SC defined the test as 1. Private Figure – run of the mill people – much easier to prove libel or slander, 2. Limited Purpose Public Figure – people who seek publicity in a limited form like an actor or public relations person then 3. Full Purpose Public Figure (those holding or running for public office and have sought publicity repeatedly) – it is very very difficult to prove malice – Sullivan in the case was a sheriff in the deep south during the civil rights move – the court said that because he ran for office, succeeded in being elected, the New York Times could say that he participated in violent attacks on civil rights leaders (which was true) – he could not prove that the NYT slandered him.

    If Eric doesn’t know this, I would suggest he go back to law school but then again if he wants to blow his money on a case he could never win it is fine with me.

  • JohnW


    I doubt Swalwell’s intent is to win a slander suit. He wins the PR war either way — if Stark retracts or if he stubbornly refuses to do so while producing no facts to support his accusations. I finally watched a YouTube of the full debate (on “Tea Party TV” of all things). Although I’ve indicated lack of enthusiasm for Swalwell, I thought he handled the accusation very well at the time, by making a quick joke about the FBI waiting outside and moving on to answering the moderator’s questions.

    Based on some libel & slander stuff I’ve read online, I don’t think Sullivan v NYT would kill a slander suit given the specificity and nature of Stark’s accusations, even though both he and Swalwell are public figures engaged in political debate. Of course, under the privilege clause in Article I of the Constitution, Stark could stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and accuse Swalwell of rape and be protected.

  • RR senile columnist

    Time for Stark to stand down with some dignity has passed. He is finished.