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Herbster plans to skip Slama deposition; campaign says timeline 'playing politics'

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Take a look at the candidates who have announced for the 2022 Nebraska governor's race.

Gubernatorial candidate Charles W. Herbster does not plan to attend a deposition planned Friday in Johnson County District Court in his legal fight with State Sen. Julie Slama.

Herbster’s campaign spokesperson Emily Novotny said in a text message that scheduling the interview for Friday was “clearly intended to take Charles off the campaign trail just days before the May 10th primary election.” She confirmed that Herbster, who heads Conklin Co. and other businesses, will be campaigning in western Nebraska on Friday (Chadron, Alliance and McCook).

Herbster filed a defamation lawsuit against Slama last month, after the Nebraska Examiner reported allegations from eight women who said Herbster had groped them in recent years. Slama was the only named accuser at the time, but another accuser, Elizabeth Todsen, has come forward and used her name since.

Slama filed a counterclaim alleging battery. Court documents at the time showed she gave notice to depose Herbster on May 6.

As of Thursday morning, Slama’s attorney Dave Lopez said that Herbster was “under a current legal obligation to appear at the Johnson County courthouse to testify under oath at 9 a.m. tomorrow.” Lopez said that was still true Thursday afternoon and that Herbster has made it clear that he won’t attend.

In her statement, Novotny accused Lopez of “playing politics with a very serious matter” and pointed out that Lopez is listed on corporate documents for Jim Pillen for Governor. Slama has endorsed Pillen, a hog producer and University of Nebraska regent, and Herbster has framed the allegations — in public statements and a TV ad — as a political hit job devised by Pillen and his most prominent backer, Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Herbster’s lawyers filed new court documents Thursday, including a motion to quash the deposition notice and seek a protective order that limits his deposition to “scheduling at a mutually convenient time” after they file a response to Slama’s counterclaim. The filing echoes the campaign’s belief that the other side was playing politics when it chose May 6 for the deposition, as well as its claims that the allegations from eight women are part of a coordinated effort.

“Defendant’s counsel unilaterally noticed the deposition to be taken on May 6th in an effort to create annoyance, oppression and undue burden upon Plaintiff,” the filing reads. “Defendant’s counsel immediately publicized the noticing of this deposition for political purposes.”

The lawyers also noted connections between Lopez and Pillen and took aim at the law firm he works for, Husch Blackwell, alleging a conflict of interest that makes it inappropriate for Lopez to serve as Slama’s attorney. The firm, his lawyers wrote, served as counsel for Herbster and his companies and didn’t disclose the conflict or potential conflicts, including its involvement with Pillen and the Republican Party.

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Slama’s lawyers responded in a court filing that there’s no support for a motion to disqualify Slama’s counsel and that Herbster hadn’t filed a motion to do so. Husch Blackwell, the objection reads, has never represented Herbster.

Herbster’s filing includes multiple attachments, including affidavits from Herbster and campaign manager Ellen Keast. In his affidavit, Herbster said he is “more than willing to sit for a deposition at a convenient time,” but that sitting for one now would “secure one of the ulterior motives” he believes is behind the allegations: an attempt to interfere with his gubernatorial run.

In another filing, Herbster’s lawyers asked to include new allegations that Slama has “compounded” the defamatory claims “through further false statements” from her and Lopez since the lawsuit was filed. They allege that a statement Lopez issued and Slama shared on Twitter was “false and defamatory,” inappropriate under court rules, and part of a “broader scheme to disseminate false and defamatory allegations against Herbster” to benefit Pillen.

“Charles W. Herbster looks forward to clearing his name through the appropriate legal venues at times agreed to by both sides, just like any other serious legal matter,” Novotny said. “He will not play Mr. Lopez’s political games.”

In a statement and objection released Thursday afternoon, Lopez said that Herbster was served with 11 days’ notice to appear for the deposition and suggested that they may pursue sanctions.

“Notwithstanding this legal obligation, Herbster has confirmed he will not appear,” Lopez said. “Nebraska’s court rules for civil discovery provide for sanctions against parties who fail to appear at properly noticed depositions.”

Herbster’s Thursday filings, Lopez said, “contain misstatements of fact or plain misapplications of law.”

In the objection, Slama’s attorneys asked the court to overrule Herbster’s motion. Lopez said a more detailed response is in the works.

“Charles Herbster is not entitled to deprive Senator Slama of the counsel of her choice,” he said.

The release also included a statement from Slama: “I am appalled at Charles Herbster’s blatant disregard of Nebraska’s judicial process. Charles Herbster sexually assaulted me and then sued me for telling the truth, but now he refuses to actually show up for his own deposition. I look forward to holding Herbster accountable through the judicial process.”

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