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Jeff Wentworth, whose district includes Hays County, in the Texas Senate chamber during the 2001 legislative session. TRIBUNE PHOTO by BOB DAEMMRICH

by REEVE HAMILTON

Given how heated the fight for the Republican nomination in SD-25 has been thus far, perhaps it was just a matter of time before a candidate filed a lawsuit.

On Thursday, incumbent state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, sued challenger Elizabeth Ames Jones, a former railroad commissioner, alleging libel and slander. Emergency room doctor Donna Campbell is also running, but is not a part of this particular squabble.

At issue is a new radio ad aired by the Jones campaign that says, “Records indicate Wentworth has billed both the state of Texas and his campaign fund for the same travel expenses — including gasoline to fuel his Lexus, which he leases with campaign money.”

Wentworth takes issue with the implication that he has engaged in criminal behavior and insists that no fraudulent activity or double-billing has taken place. “To be falsely accused of committing a crime is over the line of political discourse and has forced me into filing this defamation suit against Jones,” he said in a statement. “I filed this lawsuit to defend my honor and the integrity of our democracy.”

At a press conference in San Antonio, Wentworth said that if he prevailed in his suit, he would donate any monetary damages awarded to a charity organization dedicated to educating Texans about the state’s political process.

Jones responded to the press conference with a statement doubling down on the allegations. “Sen. Wentworth’s double-billing for gas and airfare is the latest breach of public trust in his long and well-documented record of ethical problems,” she said, contending that there are more than 200 instances of Wentworth billing both the state and his campaign for fuel as well as similar issues with expenses on air travel.

Wentworth’s lawsuit counters with this explanation for his expenses: “The procedure followed is that the expenses are advanced in the form of a loan from [Wentworth's] official campaign account. Upon receipt of the reimbursement from the state of Texas pursuant to the sworn expense report, the funds are then repaid to the campaign account.”

The back-and-forth between Wentworth and Jones has been has been one of the state’s more extreme political battles this season. Wentworth has released ads depicting Jones as a puppet of Texans for Lawsuit Reform and filed ethics complaints against Jones and her husband.

Jones has responded with harsh ads of her own, including accusations of “ethical lapses.”

Updated, 5:40 p.m. MAY 17:

Elizabeth Ames Jones, who is running for the Republican nomination in SD-25, announced that she intends to file a counterclaim to the defamation suit filed against her Thursday morning by incumbent state Sen. Jeff Wentworth.

Wentworth accused Jones of libel and slander following her claims that he had billed his campaign and the state for expenses related to air travel and fuel for his car.

On Thursday afternoon, Jones said in a statement, “I will be filing a counterclaim in Bexar County District Court tomorrow because truth is an absolute defense, and my television ads are true.” She also called on Wentworth to produce copies of the reimbursement checks for the expenditures in question.
REEVE HAMILTON reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

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