An email made public by the campaign of a New York Democratic congressional candidate suggests that Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) threatened to cut down on advertising buys with a local television station if it went ahead with a planned taping of a Q & A with his challenger.
Hanna is running for re-election against Dan Lamb in central New York’s 22nd district.
Emails provided to TPM by the Lamb campaign show that as late as September 28, WUTR in Utica and WSYR in Syracuse, both ABC affiliates, were moving ahead with a plan to tape a 30 minute Q & A with Lamb on Friday. The plan was in motion despite the fact that Hanna had declined to participate. But on Wednesday, WUTR Vice President and General Manager Stephen Merren sent an email to WSYR employees and Mike Morosi, Lamb’s campaign manager, informing them that WUTR would no longer participate in the taping.
“I got an angry call from Richard Hanna yesterday saying that Dan Lamb has intentionally baited him in his press release and that he will not agree to meet with us under this type of setup,” Merren wrote. “He went on to tell me that we were being played by Lamb and the results would not be favorable for his continued abiltiy to deal with our news organizations.”
Hanna’s campaign and Merren have pushed back against the suggestion that the congressman threatened Merren. But the language in the email is pretty stark.
“[Hanna] indicated to me that we would not be considered for his ad dollars and our level of cooperation in the future could be affected,” Merren also wrote. “I have councelled [sic] with Tim Busch [COO of Nexstar Broadcasting Group, WUTR’s parent company] and we are going to have to back out of this taping on Friday and deal with our relationship with Congressman Hanna on our own. I regret making this decision so late for WSYR as we jointly announced this last week. However I do not want to offer Dan Lamb a forum to bash Hanna and call him out for an ‘Empty Chair’. I have reached out to Richard to tell him of my decision.”
Lamb’s campaign pounced on the email, putting out a press release on Thursday.
“Congressman Richard Hanna should be ashamed of himself for using his money to influence the journalistic decisions of a local news station,” Lamb said in a statement. “If this isn’t a violation of FCC rules it should be. What Hanna did is the moral equivalent of bribing a cop.”
A Hanna’s spokeswoman, however, told Gannett’s Washington bureau on Thursday that Merren had sent her a very different email about WUTR’s decision, in which he wrote that he “had a nice conversation with Richard and we have backed out of this debate with WSYR… I agree with Richard that this was not a good idea.”
Merren, for his part, told Gannett that his email had been poorly worded, and that he did not know Morosi worked for Lamb when he sent it, despite Morosi’s email address ending in “@danlambforcongress.com.”
“[Hanna] did not threaten me with not advertising or anything like that,” Merren said.
Reached by phone Friday, Merren said he was “done” talking about the matter, and that he had been “advised by my management to just try to take myself out of this story and let it run its course.”
“I’m uncomfortable because of the circumstances of this,” Merren told TPM. “I can just tell you that nothing that the Lamb camp has put out is anywhere close to the truth. I’m just not interested in trying to refute it. Let them run their campaign, let them work with their candidate to try to get him elected, and I just want to stay out of it.”
According to the Lamb campaign, WSYR dropped out of the taping on Thursday, canceling the event.
“The stated reason was a need to comply with FCC equal time rules,” Morosi, Lamb’s campaign manager, told TPM in an email. “The station suddenly felt it was necessary to give all 9 federal candidates in the broadcast range the same half hour time they gave to us. This is a very strange and new interpretation of equal time rules. They offered equal time to Mr. Hanna, but he declined to access it.”
Hanna and Lamb are scheduled to face off in five debates before election day, according to Gannett.
Calls to Nexstar, WUTR’s parent company, and the Hanna campaign were not immediately returned.
Read the full text of Merren’s email:
Mike, Robert, Theresa and Dan,
I got an angry call from Richard Hanna yesterday saying that Dan Lamb has intentionally baited him in his press release and that he will not agree to meet with us under this type of setup. He went on to tell me that we were being played by Lamb and the results would not be favorable for his continued abiltiy to deal with our news organizations.
He sited [sic] 7 other NY State Congressional races where the candidates have agreed to 3 or less debates. He told me that his team made their choices of his 6 debates in August and that the League of Women Voters in Utica met with him three times in his office in Utica and were told their request was not considered because it came in almost a month after they had made their decisions.
He indicated to me that we would not be considered for his ad dollars and our level of cooperation in the future could be affected. I have councelled with Tim Busch and we are going to have to back out of this taping on Friday and deal with our relationship with Congressman Hanna on our own. I regret making this decision so late for WSYR as we jointly announced this last week. However I do not want to offer Dan Lamb a forum to bash Hanna and call him out for an “Empty Chair”. I have reached out to Richard to tell him of my decision.
Call me this morning at redacted and we can discuss further. I’m sure we can work through this as we make future pans to work on other projects. Thanks for all you have done to welcome WUTR into your family.
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com