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State Senate candidates settle defamation suit, Marcia Morgan admits campaign ads ‘not based in actual fact’

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Morgan acknowledged ‘regret’ that her accusations weren’t factual, but also laid blame at the feet of the North Carolina Senate Democratic Caucus — saying she was following its guidance. Lee said he was pleased with the settlement, which included reimbursement for the legal fees he incurred in the lawsuit.

During the hard-fought 2022 campaign for State Senate District 7, Democratic challenger Marcia Morgan’s campaign ran an advertisement accusing incumbent Republican Michael Lee of using his position as a sitting state senator to obtain favorable treatment for the real estate clients he served as an attorney.

Specifically, the ads accused Lee of securing City of Wilmington approval for The Avenue, a major mixed-use development on Military Cutoff in 2018 — over the objection of city planners.

City staff did express concerns about the project, including traffic issues. However, Mayor Bill Saffo later issued a public statement categorically denying that Lee used his political position to influence the city’s decision.

With about a month left in the campaign, Lee filed a defamation suit. Although the courts did rule the defamation suit itself could proceed, Judge Phyllis Gorham denied Lee’s request for an injunction to block the ads. Morgan agreed to discontinue them — but publicly maintained confidence in her case.

"I am pleased that the court has seen Mr. Lee’s request for an injunction for what it is, a political stunt. While he may not want the facts out there, the voters of New Hanover County deserve to know who is representing them in Raleigh when they go to the polls next month. I stand behind the facts of my ad and look forward to defending those facts in court as this lawsuit moves through the legal channels,” Morgan said in a statement released by her campaign in early October 2022.

Related:Courts decline to block Marcia Morgan's ads in tough Senate 7 race against Michael Lee

The campaign was tough, and expensive — with political parties spending close to $3 million on District 7 — but Lee ultimately won the election by just over 1,700 votes.

Last week, Morgan announced on social media that she had settled with Lee on undisclosed terms.

“Michael Lee and I just resolved a lawsuit regarding a political advertisement that my campaign ran in 2022. Following the guidance of the NC Senate Democratic Caucus’ staff and consultants, my campaign ran an advertisement that accused Michael Lee of using his position as a NC Senator to obtain special favors for his real estate developer clients. I regret that my accusations were not based in actual facts. I am grateful to put this matter behind me and move forward,” Marcia Morgan wrote on her campaign page.

The caucus did not return a request for comment from WHQR.

Yesterday, Lee also issued a statement.

“Last year, I initiated this lawsuit in response to a false and defamatory advertisement created by campaign consultants from the Senate Democratic Caucus and aired by my political opponent. My primary objectives were to protect my reputation, defend my law firm, and set the record straight. I am pleased that the settlement accomplished those goals and included a reimbursement for the costs of this lawsuit,” Lee wrote.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.