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WASHINGTON -- A federal judge this week ordered Rep. Devin Nunes' family members to disclose how they are paying for their defamation lawsuit against a reporter and magazine publisher over a 2018 story about their Iowa farm.
The judge will review the records detailing who is paying for the litigation behind closed doors before deciding whether to share them with lawyers for the reporter and publisher, meaning that there is a possibility that no one else -- including those lawyers and their clients -- will get to see the information.
Judge Mark Roberts of Iowa's Northern District Court wants to know whether the California Republican congressman is involved in the family's case, he wrote in his ruling.
Nunes shares the same lawyer as the family in other lawsuits he has filed against media companies and people he claims have defamed or conspired against him since 2019.
One of those cases is against the same reporter and magazine company over the same story about the Iowa farm. Nunes is a witness in the family's case.
In a court hearing this summer, the congressman's brother said that he had "no idea" who was paying their lawyers and that the family had only paid one $500 fee.
"Anthony Nunes III's lack of knowledge about who is paying the attorneys prosecuting this action raises legitimate concern about not only who may be in charge of the lawsuit, but also whether Plaintiffs are still the real parties in interest," Roberts wrote in his decision.
Lawyers for the journalist, Ryan Lizza, and the magazine company, Hearst, asked that the Nunes family share who was paying for their legal fees this summer.
In their motion, they wrote that the lawsuit might be motivated by someone other than the family. They said this motivation was relevant to the case because it might be fueled by wealthy private donors connected to the congressman as a means to "chill" media coverage.
Hearst attorneys wrote that information also could shed light on whether the Nunes family should be considered public figures, which would make it harder for them to win a defamation lawsuit.
Lawyers for the Nunes family objected, questioning relevance to the lawsuit.
The family filed the lawsuit against Lizza and Hearst over a story published in its magazine Esquire that suggested the Nunes' farm, NuStar Farms, employed undocumented immigrants. They are seeking $20 million in damages.
Throughout proceedings, the family has denied coordinating with the congressman, but has not denied receiving financial support for the litigation, Roberts wrote in his decision filed Tuesday.
He said that disclosing who was funding the suit would provide clarity on whether the family has actually coordinated with the congressman.
"These circumstances may not ultimately turn out to be 'untoward,' but they are certainly unusual," Roberts wrote.
The Nunes family is represented by lawyers Steven Biss, who represents the congressman in almost all of his defamation lawsuits, and William McGinn.
Neither of Nunes' attorneys responded to a request for comment. Attorneys for Hearst and Lizza also did not respond to a request for comment. Lizza declined to comment. A spokesman for the congressman did not respond to a request for comment.
Nunes has filed 10 lawsuits against media companies and others he regards as critics over the past three years. The companies include Twitter; McClatchy, the parent company of The Fresno Bee; The Washington Post; and CNN.
Questions over how the congressman has been funding his own lawsuits fueled an ethics complaint by a nonpartisan watchdog group last year. It is unclear whether the Office of Congressional Ethics, which looks into those complaints, has reviewed it or found a violation.
A federal judge last year dismissed Nunes' lawsuit against Lizza and Hearst, finding the Iowa farm story did not defame him. An appeals court reopened part of the case last month over a tweet Lizza sent hyperlinking to his story after Nunes had sued. Lizza and Hearst's attorneys are asking the court to reconsider its ruling.
Roberts ruled that the family must hand over documents to him detailing who is funding the suit by Nov. 2. He will review them privately, called an "in camera" inspection, before deciding if the family must share who is funding the suit with the defense lawyers for Lizza and Hearst.
"If, after my in camera review, no reason appears to reconsider my decision, I anticipate entering a supplemental order requiring their production to Defendants consistent with the protective order in place," he wrote.