Jan 12, 2022 - Politics

Former Texas elected official sues for defamation

An oil rig in West Texas.
Flags fly near an oil rig in Midland in 2020. Photo: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

A new defamation lawsuit mixes politics with the internet.

Driving the news: A former elected oil and gas regulator has filed the lawsuit against a man who published explosive claims that the state official engaged in an extramarital affair.

Ryan Sitton lost the 2020 Republican primary in his reelection attempt to remain on the three-member Texas Railroad Commission.

  • The Austin-based state agency regulates the oil, gas and pipeline industries.
  • For the record: The commission has long had nothing to do with railroads.

The suit, filed by Sitton in late December in Galveston County, seeks at least $10 million in damages from Joshua Matthew Pierce, who allegedly published the claims under an alias, Matthew Briscoe, on a website called the South Texas Journal.

  • The claims were published in mid-February 2020 as early voting was set to start.
  • An engineer by training, Sitton clashed with his fellow, arguably more conservative commissioners on some regulatory and personnel matters.
  • But in an upset, Sitton, a well-funded incumbent who held endorsements from key Republicans, lost the primary to Jim Wright, owner of a South Texas oilfield waste services company.

Details: The suit says Pierce contended "that Plaintiff attempted to act out 'racial fantasies' with said female, referred to her as a 'slave girl,' and sought to simulate nonconsensual sexual acts on her in the Governor's Mansion that would be 'part of black history.'"

  • "The entirety of the posts is completely false," the lawsuit says.
  • "An image used for one of Defendant's articles depicts a man that bears a slight resemblance to Plaintiff, romantically embracing a woman. ... Defendant described the image as being provided by a Jamaican 'victim' to prove that she had had relations with the Plaintiff," says the suit.
  • "A basic [G]oogle search of the image used in Defendant's false article reveals that the image did not depict the Plaintiff, but was instead a stock image of a married couple living in California that it is used on dozens of websites," the suit says.
  • The suit claims that after Pierce was notified about this, he "removed the photo from the article, yet still continued to use the photo to promote and proliferate his article through social media."
  • Pierce "does not meet the legal definition of a journalist," the suit says.
  • "The Defendant is a liar," the lawsuit concludes. "He published a hit piece, containing salacious lies about an upstanding business man and public official. Unfortunately, his silly and false story gained some traction, and influenced an election."

What they're saying: "Let me clear--this is #America and the #Press is a #FreePress and not obligated to government officials," Pierce posted on Twitter over the weekend about the lawsuit.

  • "And to think that little old blogger down here in #CorpusChristi, #Texas could influence an election," he added.
  • Pierce told Axios that Sitton's suit is "an attempt to deny Texans their say at the polls and earn justification for not campaigning, not taking his political opponents seriously, and frankly thinking far too highly of oneself to recognize that in any given election one can be beat for any number of reasons."
  • Wright, who was not named as a defendant in the suit, did not reply to an Axios interview request.

Sitton is represented in the Galveston district court lawsuit by famed Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

  • Buzbee, who also represents women alleging sexual misconduct against Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson, ran unsuccessfully for mayor Houston in 2019 and served as an attorney for Rick Perry when he was governor.
  • In 2021, he filed a $750 million lawsuit against rapper Travis Scott on behalf of 120 victims who died or were injured during the Astroworld Festival crowd crush.

Read the lawsuit

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