BOISE -- The candidates in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District race squared off in a televised debate Thursday that brought negative campaign attack ads into focus.
At the City Club forum, which was held at the Grove Hotel and broadcast on KTVB 24/7 (Channel 7.2), Democratic incumbent Rep. Walt Minnick defended his latest commercial against Republican challenger Raul Labrador.
In it, Minnick attacked Labrador for his role as defense lawyer in a 2001 drug case. The defendant was Carlos Lopez. The narrator in the ad said:
Carlos Lopez didn’t face justice. The U.S. Attorney’s office questioned Raul Labrador’s ethics, claiming that he had a specific and pre-existing plan to help Carlos flee to Mexico to avoid the charges. He was later caught after sneaking across the border – again.”
Minnick says the ad is substantiated.
“All I am doing is repeating what the U.S. Attorney who was there had to say about my opponent," Minnick said.
But does he really?
In the court document cited, the U.S. Attorney never questions Labrador's ethics, but did argue before a judge that he thought Labrador “had a specific and pre-existing plan to help Carlos flee to Mexico to avoid the charges.”
Labrador says he was carrying out his responsibility as an immigration lawyer.
"It's my job to represent my client,” Labrador said. “I would actually lose my license if I don't do everything I can to represent my clients. If this was unethical or criminal behavior, I think you know…the prosecutor…would have filed charges, or sent a letter to the bar. Neither one of those things was done.”
We wanted to ask Minnick about the specific claims in the ad, but he walked away from our camera when we approached him in the hallway after the debate.
"I've got a meeting. I'm sorry,” he said.
Labrador: "I was never sent to the bar, I was never charged with a crime and he continues to say that I committed unethical behavior."
Ad: ‘Lopez didn't face justice’
This claim is false.
Knowing that Lopez, as an illegal immigrant, would be turned over to immigration authorities Labrador asked the judge to release him. The U.S. Attorney objected. The judge released Lopez. U.S. Marshals then turned custody over to immigration authorities, who eventually deported him. Labrador played no role in that process. The charges against Lopez were later dropped.
The Minnick ad highlighted Lopez as one of 22 suspects rounded up in a 2001 drug bust in Canyon County, but Labrador says his client was a low-level defendant. One federal prosecutor said that at that time Homeland Security routinely deported low-level criminal suspects, rather than pay for their incarceration and prosecution.
Ad: Lopez ‘caught sneaking across the border’
That may be true, but what the ad leaves out is the fact Labrador was no longer Lopez's attorney after his deportation. Minnick campaign manager John Foster insists Labrador was still Lopez’s “attorney of record” until 2004, but the date Lopez was captured was not mentioned in the ad.
“There is not a single fact in any of my advertising that is not well documented,” Minnick said.
“I think Mr. Minnick's campaign is going to go down in history as the most shameful campaign in the history of Idaho,” Labrador countered.
The prosecutor who handled the Lopez case now works in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. We called his office Thursday, but got his voicemail. We'll let you know if we hear back from him.
Thomas Moss, who served as U.S. Attorney at the time the case came before a federal judge in 2001, sent KTVB a statement Thursday:
“My personal opinion after a review of the matter is that Mr. Labrador did nothing illegal or unethical. He was simply representing his client within the law and according to court procedures as allowed at that time, as I would expect any competent attorney to do. In my personal opinion the television ad is unfair in that it distorts the facts in a prejudicial manner.”
John Foster responded:
"Mr. Moss was a political appointee who was not directly involved in this case. As the record makes clear, the AUSA involved had a very different view at the time than the one Mr. Moss holds now."