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    U.S. Rep. Mike Lawler’s attacks on press freedoms draw scrutiny

    Rep. Mike Lawler, R-Pearl River, a political consultant by trade, likes to control the message on his home turf.   

    A darling of the national press corps, Lawler appears often on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, espousing his “moderate” Republican views on a broad range of foreign and domestic issues.

    Back home, however, he bars the press from his Congressional office’s public Town Hall meetings and declines to answer questions about why he does so. Lawler’s issues with the press extend as well to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

    In late November, Lawler, an ardent supporter of Israel, rallied a bipartisan group of 13 fellow members of Congress to sign a letter to Reuters News President Paul Bascobert. It cited a pro-Israel media monitoring organization, HonestReporting.com, which had questioned whether Reuters’ journalists had collaborated with Hamas in their reporting on the morning of the Oct. 7 invasion.

    “Most concerning is the potential that a Reuters journalist may have had prior knowledge of this deadly attack, yet said nothing, which would be unethical, inhumane and indefensible,” wrote Lawler.  

    That letter, however, was sent 11 days after Reuters had labeled the HonestReporting post as “baseless speculation,” three other news organizations had debunked the nonprofit’s conspiracy theory, and HonestReporting’s executive editor had accepted the media’s response.

    Lawler’s letter to Reuters, which was shared with the press, was based on HonestReporting’s already debunked allegations.

    “We are deeply concerned about the irresponsibility of HonestReporting in publishing such damaging accusations,” said Thomson Reuters Senior Director Heather Carpenter. “Its executive director has accepted that there is no evidence to support the incendiary insinuations in the report. The baseless speculation in the HonestReporting post, presented as ‘raising ethical questions,’ has posed grave risks to journalists in the region.”

    Lawler media spokesman Nate Soule did not return several emails seeking comment about the press ban from Town Halls or the letter to Reuters News.

    From political consulting to Congress

    Lawler’s skirmish with Reuters, and his press ban at his Congressional Town Hall meetings, come as he seeks re-election in the 17th Congressional District, which includes all of Rockland and Putnam counties, Westchester north of White Plains, and a slice of southern Dutchess. The 17th is among 18 swing districts held by Republicans that Democrat Joe Biden won in the 2020 presidential election.

    Before his election to Congress, Lawler was a force in the political consulting world for New York and New Jersey Republicans through his 50% ownership in Checkmate Strategies LLC, earning $150,000 in 2022, according to his federal financial disclosure filing. His clients that year included the Rockland County Republican Committee, Putnam County Sheriff Kevin McConville, and state Sen. Bill Weber, R-Montebello.

    The report, filed in August 2023, said he had a separation agreement pending with his former firm.

    Lawler’s crackdown on the local press began this summer, when Liz Armstrong, a reporter from the Highlands Current, a Putnam County weekly, wrote that she was prohibited from recording a Lawler Town Hall at George Fisher Middle School in Carmel. She was barred from taking photographs as well.

    The photograph that accompanied the story was provided by Lawler’s Congressional office, she said.

    In September, a New York Times reporter was barred from a Lawler Town Hall at John Jay High in East Fishkill, the Times reported.  

    By November, the press was barred from his Congressional Town Hall at Rockland Community College in Suffern. Attendees were threatened with expulsion if they recorded what Lawler had to say. Still, an inside-the-auditorium report was posted by the Rockland Daily website, geared towards the county’s Orthodox community.

    A constituent of Lawler’s, I attended as well, with a ticket provided by a friend that was not checked at the door.

    His next Town Hall, scheduled for Dec. 17 at Westlake High School in Thornwood, is closed to the press.

    Media advocates oppose Lawler’s ban

    Jenn Nelson, a senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national nonprofit that provides legal services to journalists, said that once a reporter witnesses an event, the First Amendment prevents a government official from barring journalists from publishing their account of what they witnessed.

    By barring the press, Lawler hopes to avoid any reporting on the unscripted public event.

    Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause NY, a nonpartisan group that promotes accountable government, has asked Lawler to rescind his policy barring the media. The group has yet to receive a response.

    Lerner said a Town Hall open to the public and financed with public funds should allow press coverage. She said the media ban violated the spirit of the First Amendment.

    “If he’s holding a campaign event, he can pick and choose,” said Lerner. “But if he is hosting a public Town Hall, and the taxpayers pay for it, the press is an important part of public, and the public deserves to know what he has said.”

    Among the issues raised by Lawler at the Rockland event was his support for what he called “education investment tax credits” that would allow parents of private school students to deduct a portion of their private school tuition payments. Lawler has not responded to emails asking him to explain his plan or provide a projected cost of the tax break to the federal treasury.

    Lerner said having the press present can guard against politicians who tell one thing to one group, and then tailor a different message for another. So can recording what they say.

    “By banning recording, an elected official wants plausible deniability,” she said. “That’s why the press needs to be there. Our system doesn’t work if the press can’t hold elected officials accountable for their actions and the positions they take.”

    Two Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for the seat — former Rep. Mondaire Jones and former Bedford Supervisor MaryAnn Carr — denounced Lawler’s press ban.

    Jones said all of his Town Hall meetings during his 2020-21 term were open to the media.

    “It is no surprise that Mike Lawler doesn’t allow the press to attend his town halls,” said Jones. “Just like Donald Trump, the serially indicted former president who Lawler worked to elect not once, but twice, Mike Lawler has no respect for the free press and refuses to conduct the affairs of his Congressional office in a transparent manner.”

    Carr called on Lawler to open these public meetings to the press.

    “It’s wrong to bar the press,” she said. “The press plays a very important part of getting information to the public.”

    Sign up for Wilson’s weekly newsletter for insights into his Tax Watch columns.

    David McKay Wilson writes about tax issues and government accountability. Follow him on Twitter @davidmckay415 or email him at dwilson3@lohud.com.

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