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Did Bruce Braley threaten to sue his neighbor over rogue chickens?
We know why the chicken crossed the road, but what happened after it crossed into Bruce Braley’s yard?
A televised debate on Sept. 28 (and a later mention on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show) brought a months-old incident involving a congressman from Iowa, a lawyer and some rogue chickens back to the national stage.
It’s one of Iowa Republicans’ favorite anecdotes -- that Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley got into a dispute with a neighbor because her chickens wandered onto his vacation property, a lake house in Holiday Lake, Iowa.
There’s a website, BraleyChicken.com, and reports of promotional rubber chickens. Karl Rove’s conservative political action committee American Crossroads released an ad in July attacking Braley over the dispute.
In Des Moines on Sept. 28, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst was well prepared with a quip about what the chicken incident says about Braley as a leader. Ernst and Braley are vying to succeed retiring Democrat Tom Harkin in one of the nation’s tightest and most-watched Senate contests.
"Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property," Ernst said. "You’re talking about bipartisanship. How do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?"
"That’s just not true," Braley replied. "I never threatened to sue anyone."
The chicken incident, which came to light in July, has been well reported. But we wondered about their disagreement at the debate. Did Braley actually threaten to sue or not?
There was a real dispute over chickens, but we didn't find evidence for a lawsuit threatened against the neighbor.
The Braleys’ neighbor, Pauline Hampton, keeps chickens in her backyard as pets and therapy animals. These chickens were previously unfenced and would occasionally wander onto the Braleys’ property, and Braley’s wife, Carolyn, claimed she could smell them.
Hampton says she did not know that the chickens were bothering her neighbors until this past spring, when Carolyn Braley told Hampton that she would be filing a complaint to the neighborhood homeowner’s association.
The neighborhood rules say, "No animals or birds, other than household pets, shall be kept on any lot."
(The Braleys weren’t the only Holiday Lake residents who had problems with the chickens, according to Yahoo and the Washington Post, both of which interviewed other Holiday Lake residents.)
Carolyn Braley’s complaint came up at the neighborhood association board meeting in May. The board ruled that the chickens are indeed pets and Hampton could keep them, as long as she fenced them into her yard.
Well, not quite.
It doesn’t appear that any legal action was taken, so why do Republicans keep saying Braley threatened to sue over the chickens?
After the matter was settled, the conservative Iowa Republican, broke the story after it acquired a series of emails. They show that Braley contacted the neighborhood association’s lawyer about a week after the board’s decision about Hampton’s chickens, complaining about the board’s "lack of action" and saying he believes "chickens are not pets and should not be permitted at Holiday Lake."
The Iowa Republican treated these emails as a smoking gun.
However, these emails -- among the lawyer, the neighborhood association board and Braley -- do not say anywhere that Braley was considering a lawsuit.
In fact, they say the opposite. The lawyer, Thomas Lacina, writes: "The implication from Mr. Braley was that he wants to avoid a ‘litigious situation.' "
Iowa Republicans say that the fact that Braley, a former trial lawyer, hinted at a "litigious situation" is evidence enough that he was considering a lawsuit -- but it still doesn’t definitively prove it.
One interpretation of the email is that Braley said to the lawyer he wants to "avoid a litigious situation," but he will sue if he has to. But another interpretation is that Braley told the lawyer he planned to "avoid a litigious situation" under all circumstances.
Point is, we don't know what was going on in Braley's head or the details of private conversations he had with his wife and the lawyer -- and neither does Ernst.
(By the way -- Jeff Patch, the author behind the Iowa Republican story, is now the communications director for the Iowa Republican Party.)
A spokesman for Braley told us that "a lawsuit was never part of the picture at all -- nor was there ever any threat of a lawsuit. Any claims to the contrary are false."
"I just reached out to somebody I knew expecting to get a phone call back and instead this thing blows up," Braley told the Washington Post.
In an interview with PolitiFact, Hampton said Braley never threatened to sue her -- though she was under the impression that he threatened to sue the neighborhood association board.
In a local newspaper, the Quad City Times, one board member said he thought a lawsuit was in the air, while the board’s vice president said he never thought that was a serious possibility.
We called the neighborhood association board, but they declined to comment and hung up the phone.
We also want to note that the original Iowa Republican story says the association’s lawyer billed the board nearly $1,700 over the dispute, but the budget document does not specify that the costs directly pertained to Braley’s interaction with the lawyer.
Additionally, the board vice president told the Quad City Times that the figure wasn’t entirely accurate, and the association's lawyer "handles a number of chores and has a monthly budget."
Ernst said Braley "threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto (his) property."
Some might not like the way Braley and his wife handled a dispute with a neighbor -- by going to the neighborhood association and then consulting the association's lawyer. Even so, there is no material evidence that Braley threatened a lawsuit against the neighbor or was even considering one. Even the neighbor says that.
We rate Ernst’s claim False.
KCCI, Iowa Senate debate, Sept. 28, 2014
Washington Post, "In Iowa, a dispute over neighbor’s chickens threatens Braley’s Senate bid," Aug. 7, 2014
Iowa Republican, "Braley threatened litigation over chickens at his Holiday Lake vacation home," July 14, 2014
Slate, "The Secrets of Chickengate," Aug. 11, 2014
Yahoo News, "The chickens that could flip the Senate," Aug. 14, 2014
Quad City Times, "Republicans mount attack on Braley over chickens," July 16, 2014
Emails between Braley, Thomas Lacina and the Holiday Lake neighborhood association board, May - June 2014
Iowa Republican Party, "Don’t be chicken, just tell the truth, Bruce," Aug. 8, 2014
Email and phone interview, Iowa GOP spokesman Jahan Wilcox, Sept. 30, 2014
Email and phone interview, Braley spokesman Sam Lau, Oct. 1, 2014
Email interview, Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel, Oct. 1, 2014
Phone interview, Pauline Hampton, Oct. 1, 2014
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