WASHINGTON — The father of Republican Rep. Sam Graves is threatening a libel lawsuit against his son's Democratic rival, escalating an already caustic congressional campaign to new heights.
Bruce Graves says he will take legal action against Democratic congressional candidate Kay Barnes unless her campaign changes a negative television ad that he claims makes false charges against his family.
Barnes spokesman Steve Glorioso calls the legal threat "frivolous" and says the campaign has no intention of withdrawing the ad.
The 30-second spot, currently running in the Kansas City area, alleges that a Tarkio airstrip on Graves' "private property" was renovated with $750,000 in federal taxpayer dollars.
In a letter Thursday forwarded by his lawyer to the Barnes campaign, Bruce Graves said his family donated the airstrip to the city of Tarkio in the 1940s and no longer owns the land.
"It is owned in fee simple absolute — ownership by the city in the fullest sense," Graves wrote. "In no way, shape or form is that land owned by any member of the Graves family."
But the Barnes campaign says the ad is accurate. Barnes' lawyer Stephen Bough says a deal allows the Graves family to retake the land for $25,000 when the city no longer wants to use it as an airstrip, benefiting from the runway improvements at no cost.
"It was a creative, sweetheart deal that bears no resemblance to a 'fee simple absolute' transfer of interest referenced in your letter," Bough wrote.
Bough said the Barnes campaign was relying on a story about the deal first reported in the Washington newspaper Roll Call earlier this year.
The race in the state's 6th Congressional District has grown increasingly negative as Graves battles a strong challenge from Barnes, a former two-term Kansas City mayor.
Graves, seeking a fifth term, has labeled Barnes a liberal, big city politician with little understanding of rural values. Barnes has branded Graves as an extension of the Bush administration and hopes to ride the change wave that is expected to increase the Democratic majority in the House. She has been able to raise more money than the incumbent.
Ryan Steusloff, a spokesman for Sam Graves' campaign, said Graves "is used to false and slanderous things being said about him." But he said Graves's father "will not stand by while a politician lies about him and tries to drag his reputation through the mud."
Steusloff also offered a statement from Blu Dow, president of the Tarkio City Council, that sided with Graves.
"Gould-Peterson Municipal airport is Tarkio city property and has been since S. J. Peterson donated it to the city in the 1940s," Dow said. "Any statement to the contrary by the Kay Barnes' campaign is an outright lie, strictly for political gain."
The dispute is even more of a family affair because Bruce Graves's letter was forwarded by an attorney at Graves, Bartle & Marcus, the law firm headed by his other son, former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves. But Bruce Graves is being represented by Edward Greim, not his son Todd.
Bruce Graves said the matter is personal to him because the airstrip was donated to the city by his grandfather in memory of a family member who died in World War II. Graves said the TV ad impugns his reputation because it "suggests that I have financially benefited from a legislative official act of my son."
But Glorioso said the Graves family "has used their positions of influence for decades."
"Now that the insider deal that gives them access to an airstrip with more than $750,000 in recent taxpayer funded renovations has been exposed, they want to sue someone," Glorioso said.