Sen. Denning facing more than $80K in legal penalties after judge orders defamation suits against Steve Rose, KC Star thrown out

Jim Denning (left) at a candidate forum during the 2016 election cycle.

A Johnson County judge’s decision on Tuesday to toss Overland Park Sen. Jim Denning’s defamation lawsuit against former Kansas City Star columnist Steve Rose has the Republican Senate Majority Leader facing bills of more than $80,000 to cover the defendants’ legal fees.

Judge Paul Gurney had ordered Denning’s suit naming the Kansas City Star as defendant dismissed earlier this month under the state’s anti-SLAPP law, which seeks to prevent “meritless lawsuits that chill free speech” from making their way through the courts. On Tuesday, Gurney said Denning’s allegations against Rose as an individual also failed to meet the legal standard for defamation and threw out that suit as well.

Gurney ordered Denning to pay the legal fees both the Star and Rose incurred defending the suits. The Star’s attorney Bernie Rhodes said in early July the total for that case was around $40,000. Rose’s attorney Eric Weslander said that the fees in the columnist’s case were slightly higher, meaning Denning is facing a penalty of more than $80,000.

Rose celebrated the development.

“It is a great thing to live in a country where there still is freedom of the press, unlike so many nations losing that freedom,” he said. “Justice prevailed today over a meritless lawsuit.”

Denning, however, sharply criticized Gurney’s decision, saying it provided “legal cover to fabricate stories to fit your own ideology.”

Denning and his attorney Mike Kuckleman, who is also chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said Rose was not able to supply any evidence that the “confessional” conversation he alluded to in the column published in January under the headline “Why hasn’t Kansas expanded Medicaid? This GOP leader has a long list of excuses” ever took place. At the heart of their argument was the fact that there is no evidence that Denning ever directly told Rose the reasons for opposition to Medicaid expansion Rose attributed to him in the column. The Star ultimately pulled the column from its website, saying it did not meet the publication’s standards.

But Rose’s attorney countered that the comments about Denning’s opposition to Medicaid expansion were paraphrased, and that there is no record of Denning denying the substance of those comments. Weslander characterized Gurney’s decision as a “vindication for Steve Rose and his 50-year career in journalism.”

“Despite multiple opportunities to do so, Sen. Denning never denied the substance of the comments attributed to him by Steve Rose, and never denied holding the views described in the article,” Weslander said. “He only denied stating the exact words published, which were clearly paraphrased. This is exactly the kind of lawsuit the anti-SLAPP act was meant to target. It’s time for Sen. Jim Denning to get out of the business of suing newspaper critics, and to get back to the job Kansas voters elected him to do.”

For his part, Denning said Gurney’s decision set a dangerous precedent for press accountability. He said that by tossing out the lawsuit, Gurney had prevented the case from entering the discovery phase, where he said they would have provided a witness and documentation to further support the allegations in the suit.

“Judge Gurney made it clear that journalists can write anything they want even if the conversation never occurred,” Denning said in a comment sent to the Shawnee Mission Post. “Don’t worry about lack of notes, timeline, or even if the topics were ever discussed. Those things do not matter according to the judge. All can be fabricated or in his judgment, paraphrased…Rose may have won this round, but journalists lost. Their work just got downgraded to [Facebook] credibility status.”

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Kuckelman echoed Denning’s dissatisfaction.

“The media has to be held accountable and should be a source the people can trust,” Kuckelman said. “It is a farce when a massive, New York Stock Exchange traded, corporation like McClatchy Company [owners of the Kansas City Star], is allowed to use a law designed to protect the people from corporate bullying to oppress the little guy.”

Kansas City Star Editor in Chief Mike Fannin chimed in on the decision on Twitter, saying the “full bill for [Denning’s] frivolous lawsuits has now come due. We’ll be watching to make sure Kansans don’t pick up the tab for his lack of judgment and/or transparency.”