A law firm aligned with Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley has threatened legal action against media outlets investigating a man featured in one of Braley’s campaign ads, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.
The Des Moines Register and National Review were contacted by top Braley donor and personal injury lawyer John Riccolo last month while looking into allegations involving Iowa college administrator Jesse James.
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James, who became an advocate against domestic violence after his daughter Holley was killed by her husband in 2008, was featured in an August campaign ad for Braley about domestic abuse legislation the congressman sponsored.
Riccolo, a partner at the Iowa personal injury law firm Riccolo, Semelroth and Henningsen, identified himself as an attorney for James in letters to news outlets several weeks after the commercial aired.
"I hereby demand that you do not publish the story, and in the event that you do so, please be advised that Mr. James will file suit for defamation against the National Review and anyone associated with the preparation and/or dissemination of this defamatory information," wrote Riccolo in a letter to National Review editor Rich Lowry on October 21.
He said he had threatened legal action against the Des Moines Register when that paper made inquiries about allegations made by James’s ex-wife and stepdaughter. The Free Beacon is declining to repeat the allegations because of their legal sensitivity.
Riccolo contributed more than $13,500 to Braley between 2005 and 2012.
Riccolo’s partners Tim Semelroth and Pressley Henningsen have contributed $17,550 and $8,700, respectively, to Braley since 2005.
Semelroth and Henningsen also co-hosted a fundraiser for Braley in Cedar Rapids last March.
In 2012, Riccolo served as president of the Iowa Civil Justice Foundation, which ran a scholarship created by Braley. Semelroth and Henningsen served as directors.
Their law firm focuses on personal injury litigation, specializing in car accidents and medical malpractice.
Riccolo did not respond to requests for comment from the Washington Free Beacon.
It could not be learned how the prominent trial lawyer came to represent James and whether he is being compensated and if so who is paying him.
The relation between attorneys and candidates is a tricky one, campaign finance experts told the Free Beacon. Legal representation potentially falls under the definition of in-kind contributions to campaign.
The Braley campaign did not respond to request for comment.
On October 22, one day after Riccolo’s letter, celebrity New York litigator Judd Burstein identified himself as a lawyer for James in a communication to National Review.
Burstein, whose client list includes Donald Trump and the Backstreet Boys, wrote, "it would be my pleasure to sue The National Review if it goes forward with its planned story."
Burstein, whose sister is a prominent New York Democrat, has not contributed to Braley. He has given more than $60,000 to largely Democratic candidates over the years.
He has contributed $1,300 to Kay Hagen, $1,300 to Jeff Merkley, $5,000 to Mark Warner, and $8,360 to ActBlue in the 2014 election cycle.
Burstein did not respond to emailed questions about how he came to represent James, whether he was being paid, and who would pay for the litigation he mentioned in his letters.
Reached by phone, Burstein told the Free Beacon that he was unable to speak because he was on painkillers while recovering from surgery.
"I can’t even talk, I’m on drugs right now," he said, before hanging up.
He did not respond to follow up emails.
James, an administrator at a small Presbyterian college in Dubuque, also did not respond to requests for comment.
His office voicemail noted that he would be out of the office and unable to respond to messages until November 4: Election Day.