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Are these billboards a new low in battle for N.J. congressional seat?

Date: November 04, 2016

Summary:
The Battle of the Billboards has plunged the war for the 5th Congressional district into a hostile new place — the skies above Route 17 in Bergen County, in a medium that falls outside the bounds of regulation.

Body:
The Battle of the Billboards has plunged the war for the 5th Congressional district into a hostile new place — the skies above Route 17 in Bergen County, in a medium that falls outside the bounds of regulation.

That's because the Federal Election Commission doesn't regulate the content or the accuracy in political billboard ads, and the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission doesn't regulate the ads for federal races, spokespersons said.

So Republican incumbent Scott Garrett and his Democratic challenger Josh Gottheimer, and political action committees, are free to bend the truth to their political will on billboards seen by thousands of drivers every day.

One such ad, paid for by House Majority PAC and on display in numerous spots along Route 17, bears a picture of a large Confederate Flag, a sight not typically seen in Bergen County. It accuses Garrett of supporting the flying of the flag in military cemeteries.

In May, Garrett voted against a ban on flying Confederate flags in the cemeteries.

Another accuses Gottheimer of assaulting a woman in a Washington, D.C., condo, a claim that stems from a 2007 lawsuit in which the woman sued a number of people, including Gottheimer, who was on the condo's board, of mistreatment.
Richard F. Silber, a lawyer who defended another client in the suit, said the case was quickly dismissed and called the matter "the hallmark of a frivolous lawsuit."

On Tuesday, drivers crawling down Route 17 in Rochelle Park were struck by billboards on both sides of the road. One even rotated between Garrett and Gottheimer attack ads. 

First, the assault claim ad appeared. It was quickly followed by an ad featuring a March editorial from the Star-Ledger in which the paper's editorial board termed Garrett "not only a shameless bigot, but also an unskilled liar" over statements the Congressman made saying he would not financial support gay Republican candidates, and his subsequent backtracking.
"As the Star-Ledger said itself, after reviewing the record, Garrett's claims are a 'jaw-dropper' of a lie ... 'born of desperation,'" Gottheimer campaign manager Alexandra Ball said in an emailed statement.

On Wednesday, Garrett's ad accusing Gottheimer of assault disappeared. And a new one appeared from Gottheimer appeared that said, "BREAKING Scott Garrett has been charged with bribery and corruption."

He has not.

Congressman Scott Garrett (R-5th Dist.) and his opponent, Josh Gottheimer, both issued cease and desist orders over each other's advertisements.

The accusation has its basis in a request made last year by a watchdog group, which asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate if Garrett accepted improper campaign donations from the payday lending industry.

"They're outrageous charges," Garrett said Wednesday night.

The Office of Congressional Ethics' policy is to not disclose if an investigation is occurring. The process becomes public only if a case is given to the House Committee on Ethics for further review.

It's rare for a political advertisement to be taken to court for libel, said Ellen Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers.

A person would have to prove that the statement was false, that the party knew the statement was false when they used it, and that it was used with malice, Goodman said.

"There's a lot of leeway for rough and tumble in political campaigns," Goodman said.

The House Majority PAC has spent more than $2 million in advertising on the 5th district race in its attempt to unseat Garrett.

"This is a top pick-up opportunity for Democrats, but even more so North Jersey voters deserve far better than a shameless bigot for their Congressman," said the PAC's spokesman, Jeb Fain.

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