The congresswoman for Ohio’s 2nd District last week filed a defamation lawsuit against one of her opponents from the 2008 election. The suit by Jean Schmidt (R-Miami Township) alleges that David Krikorian of Madeira and his campaign made a number of knowingly false and derogatory statements about Schmidt during and after the election.
And from there, things get a little weird.
“Jean Schmidt, in her infinite stupidity, denies it; she’s bought and paid for by the Turkish lobby,” Krikorian says.
He’s referring to the nature of his statements — allegations he made that Schmidt took campaign funding from the Turkish government in exchange for denying the existence of the so-called “Armenian Genocide” during the First World War.
First, a little history: During World War I, the Ottoman Empire waged a massive assault on the Armenian people. Most estimates suggest that 1.5 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1918. Many modern-day Armenian-Americans, including Krikorian, trace their lineage through survivors who emigrated to the United States to escape persecution. Turkey, by many accounts, colluded with the Ottomans to carry out the assault.
This nearly century-old tragedy has contemporary implications. Turkish-Armenian relations are shaky at best and have been complicated by regional conflicts, the fall of the Soviet Union and the large amounts of oil and natural gas that travel through that part of Europe en route to more affluent consumers.
A movement led by descendants of the Armenian diaspora is pushing for nations such as the United States to classify the killings as genocide, a designation that would pressure Turkey for some type of reparations and likely change the dynamic of its frosty relations with its neighbor.
It would also change Turkey’s relationship with the U.S.; a legislative effort this spring by Congress to have the killings labeled genocide resulted in Turkey withdrawing its U.S.
ambassador and the White House threatening to block further action.
Schmidt voted against the proposed bill, and that’s the source from which Krikorian’s comments appear to spring.
“There’s an attachment to historic hatreds that reflects itself in the idea that, when someone declines to fight that hatred … they must be tools or stooges taking bribes, which is a lie in (Schmidt’s) case,” says Donald Brey, Schmidt’s attorney.
According to court records, Schmidt stated that she didn’t know enough about the issue’s history to approve the genocide label. Krikorian responded with a series of statements.
Here’s one: “Jean Schmidt has taken $30,000 in blood money from Turkish government sponsored political action committees to deny the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children by the Ottoman Turkish Government during World War I.”
And another: “I ask the people of Ohio’s 2nd congressional district to ask themselves if our representative should be taking money from a foreign government that is killing our soldiers?”
The Ohio Elections Commission (OEC) ruled the statements, along with a third alleging proof of the money paid to Schmidt’s campaign by the Turks, violated campaign laws against knowingly making false claims, or making those claims with reckless disregard of the truth. While Schmidt did receive funding from the Turkish Coalition USA political action committee during the election, she received $7,650, not $30,000. Her largest contributor, American Financial Group, contributed $41,800 to her $1.2 million war chest.
Krikorian says he’s filed a federal suit against the OEC alleging it doesn’t have jurisdiction in a Congressional election. And his view of Schmidt’s civil suit includes more fiery accusations.
“I was pretty shocked to see this,” he says of the suit. “But on the other hand, seeing how she orchestrated my defeat in the Democratic primary…”
He leaves the sentence hanging, referring to his loss to Surya Yalamanchili in the 2010 Democratic primary.
In that election, Krikorian came under fire for allegedly making statements poking fun at his opponent’s last name and heritage — allegations first spread by Schmidt’s campaign and accepted as fact by two Democratic Party county chairmen. Krikorian denies the charge, and there is no video or audio proof it occurred.
Schmidt is asking for compensatory and punitive damages totaling $850,000 for each of eight counts of defamation — totaling $6.8 million. According to Brey, the money is less important than the lawsuit’s goal: stopping Krikorian’s allegedly false and vindictive statements.
“It’s an odd situation,” Brey says. “How do you keep someone from seizing on hatred, even at the expense of his own reputation?”
“The whole thing has been bizarre from the start,” Krikorian says, before expressing his thoughts on recent coverage of the case in local news. “She got gratuitous headlines from the compromised Cincinnati Enquirer, but this is a long fight and she will ultimately lose.”