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Beto O’Rourke says Dallas pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren’s defamation lawsuit won’t silence him

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

“O’Rourke’s statements are flat-out false … made for political gain in a desperate attempt to overcome what appears to be a weakening campaign to unseat Governor Abbott,” Warren’s company says.

Beto O'Rourke
Beto O’Rourke, democratic candidate for Governor, stands next to an image of Texas Governor Greg Abbott as he speaks during a press conference announcing that he’s being sued for defamation by Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, on Monday, March 7, 2022 at a Hilton Garden hotel in Dallas. (Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

By Gromer Jeffers Jr.

Beto O’Rourke is being sued for defamation by Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren in what the Democratic gubernatorial nominee describes as an effort to silence him from criticizing energy companies that he says made illegal profits from last year’s winter storm that left millions without power.

Warren is the chairman and CEO of Energy Transfer.

“All I have done today, and all I’ve done over the course of the campaign, is to share these facts with the electorate that will decide the outcome of this next election,” O’Rourke said during a news conference in Dallas.

“I want to make sure that there is justice for those who were killed effectively by this governor. I’ll make sure that there’s justice for the ratepayer who is now forced to foot the bill for these illegal windfall profits made by the gas companies and Energy Transfer Partners and others here in the state of Texas.”

A spokesperson for Energy Transfer said Warren is not interested in muzzling O’Rourke from talking about the storm or Abbott.

“Beto O’Rourke clearly hasn’t read or doesn’t understand the lawsuit filed personally by Kelcy Warren. Mr. Warren is not interested in barring Mr. O’Rourke from talking about the winter storm. That is the right of every Texan and every American,” the statement from the company said. “What Mr. Warren is interested in stopping are the irresponsible, defamatory and highly offensive statements by Mr. O’Rourke related to his donation to Governor Abbott’s campaign.”

The statement added that it is the right of “every Texan and every American to contribute to the campaigns of candidates they support without being defamed in the process.”

“Mr. O’Rourke’s statements are flat-out false, and they appear to have been made for political gain in a desperate attempt to overcome what appears to be a weakening campaign to unseat Governor Abbott,” according to the statement.

A spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whom O’Rourke is challenging in November, said Abbott had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

“Our campaign is in no way involved in this lawsuit,” said Abbott campaign spokesperson Renae Eze before taking a shot at O’Rourke for asking his press aide about the contents of the lawsuit during his news conference. “Having to rely on his communications director to answer simple questions from the press corps shows that Beto O’Rourke isn’t ready for prime time.”

O’Rourke on Monday stood firm.

“Warren is alleging defamation in his lawsuit for telling the truth and connecting the dots between the profits he made, the contributions he’s then made to Greg Abbott and the policy that has been followed,” O’Rourke said. “That’s the nature of it.”

O’Rourke added that Warren’s legal team sent him threatening emails before the lawsuit, though he did not share them with the media.

“We feel very confident about our chances to prevail in court, and I think it’s another opportunity for us to share the truth with the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said.

Kelcy Warren
Kelcy Warren, Chairman and CEO of Energy Transfer, speaks during an unveiling ceremony for a memorial in honor of the five officers who died on July 7, 2016 at the Jack Evans Police Headquarters in Dallas on Monday, July 8, 2019. (Ryan Michalesko/The Dallas Morning News)(Ryan Michalesko / Staff Photographer)

The lawsuit against O’Rourke was filed Feb. 22 in San Saba County, where Warren owns property. It describes O’Rourke as a “failed politician” and demands he stop making and retract falsehoods made about Warren.

“O’Rourke intentionally, repeatedly, and widely disseminated his deliberate and defamatory falsehoods through publicly released messages on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites and during speaking engagements and interviews,” the lawsuit states. “O’Rourke intended that his malicious and baseless defamatory statements publicly humiliate Warren and discourage others from contributing to Governor Abbott’s campaign.”

The lawsuit says O’Rourke went beyond normal political talking points.

“That Warren has committed felonies in a purported effort to profit off the suffering of his fellow Texans are completely out of bounds for any speech, let alone as talking points for a candidate for the Governor of the State of Texas,” the lawsuit states. “The accusations go well beyond the sorts of vague and generalized accusations of political and corporate corruption that are often thrown around; rather, they focus on a particular person, a particular campaign contribution, at a specific point in time, and a particular purported favor done in exchange for the contribution.”

Gov. Greg Abbott
A composite of Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott, left, and Democratic Party challenger Beto O’Rourke, right LEFT PHOTO — Texas Governor Greg Abbott, answers a question after signing HB9 into law during a press conference at the Fort Worth Police Officers Association headquarters on Friday September 17, 2021. (Robert W. Hart/Special Contributor) RIGHT PHOTO — Former congressman Beto O’Rourke speaks during his For the People, The Texas Drive for Democracy event on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at Paul Quinn College in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Staff Photographer)

Warren is a prolific donor to Republican candidates, including former President Donald Trump. According to the lawsuit, he has made contributions to Abbott for several election cycles. And he made the $1 million contribution because Abbott was facing opposition in the GOP primary for governor from former state Sen. Donald Huffines, who had the ability to self-fund a bid for governor.

On March 1, Abbott easily beat Huffines and former GOP Chairman Allen West for the Republican nomination for governor.

The lawsuit points to social media posts by O’Rourke stating that Warren’s campaign contribution was designed to “buy off” Abbott.

“O’Rourke should be held liable for his lies and forced to pay for the damage he has caused,” the lawsuit states.

O’Rourke has made the winter storm and its fallout his core campaign issue. Last month O’Rourke staged a multicity tour across Texas that coincided with the anniversary of the winter storm that left millions without power and resulted in the deaths of over 240 people.

The El Paso Democrat has said energy companies “illegally” profited from the storm and with Abbott’s consent. He said Abbott was warned that the grid would not be able to handle a massive winter storm but did nothing.

“He is going to try to take me to court, use his billions of dollars to try to shut me down and shut us up from telling the story of what happened to the people of Texas,” O’Rourke said. “He’s trying to stop me from fighting for the people of Texas. And just as we did before, we are not backing down right now.”

O’Rourke also didn’t back away from his comments about Abbott, saying the governor “essentially killed” Texans with his failure to secure the state’s power grid.

“Those 700 to 1,000 to maybe more Texans would still be alive, if Greg Abbott had listened to those who said that the grid was vulnerable, that we needed to weatherize every part of the grid, including the gas supply, no matter what it costs his donors to do that,” O’Rourke said. “Greg Abbott chose his donors and political contributors over the people of Texas, and the people of Texas pay the price.”

O’Rourke said that, if elected governor, he would winterize the gas supply, connect Texas to the national grid, lower utility costs by recouping money “stolen” by greedy energy companies, sue companies that engaged in price gouging and appoint an independent market monitor for natural gas issues.

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