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In this file photo, TJ Cox takes photos of his supporters late on Election Night in Bakersfield at an election watch party in 2018.

The campaign to reelect U.S. Rep. TJ Cox has responded strongly to a lawsuit filed against the congressman in Fresno County Superior Court.

Filed in December, but first made public by the San Joaquin Valley Sun website in early January, the lawsuit claims Cox, a Democrat representing the state’s 21st District, committed fraud by improperly representing himself, and failed to pay back loans after soliciting funds in 2013 and 2014.

Coming nearly three months before the March 3 primary, the lawsuit threatens to distract Cox from his campaign goals, and turn attention to his business history, which has been criticized since he entered office at the beginning of 2019.

The lawsuit stems from two businesses related to the mining industry in which Cox became involved. In the past year, Cox’s position on the board of one of those companies, Constellation Mines, elicited an ethics complaint following reports in local media outlets.

Cox subsequently divested from the company in June 2019, according to Bloomberg, although company documents dated the removal to February of the same year. He called his failure to disclose his position at the company an oversight.

In the latest lawsuit — brought forward by Fresno County doctor Edward Tang and Sacramento County doctor Robert Tang and his wife, Virginia Tsai — the plaintiffs said they loaned Cox $150,000 for stakes in Troy Equipment and Constellation Mining. They said, however, they have not received their money back nor the interest on the loans.

When asked about the lawsuit, the Cox campaign called it a politically motivated smear waged by a political operative of the David Valadao campaign, and turned attention to Valadao’s own financial history.

“It is a baseless, politically motivated lawsuit,” the Cox campaign wrote in an email. “Rather than using a phony website to attack TJ Cox, it is time David Valadao answered the serious questions before him.”

Valadao, a Republican, is running to reclaim his seat from Cox in what is expected to be a hotly contested election. His own financial history has been brought into question in the recent past.

In November 2019, The Fresno Bee reported that Valadao’s family farm had not paid a $325,000 settlement to workers after the farm went bankrupt. The newspaper reported that both of Valadao’s family’s farms, Triple V Dairy and Two Star Dairy, were sued by Rabobank in 2017 over unpaid loans.

The workers accused the farm of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime, according to the paper.

In the statement, the Cox campaign said Valadao needed to answer questions about why he “stiffed workers” and did not pay back creditors while his campaign took donations from the troubled businesses.

The Valadao campaign did not address their opponent’s statement directly.

“Since he declared his campaign from the Bay Area and throughout his first year in Congress, TJ Cox has failed to be honest with voters, investors, and his own business partners about his fraudulent business dealings,” the Valadao campaign wrote in an email. “This latest lawsuit is just another example. The Central Valley deserves a fighter who can deliver water to our communities, not fraud lawsuits.”

An April status hearing has been set for Cox’s lawsuit, after the election. Whether either candidate’s financial history will be enough to trip them up before then has yet to be seen. Voters have until March to make up their minds.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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