Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., is calling on the White House to withdraw Mark Burkhalter's nomination after revealing the legal filing.
The State Department referred questions to the White House, which has not yet responded to requests for comment.
"These actions should disqualify anyone from Senate confirmation. During this time of national trauma and reckoning over violence and racist actions against African-Americans, however, it is unthinkable to nominate for a position of public trust an individual who participated in such a despicable, racist scheme," Menendez wrote in a letter to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows Thursday.
Burkhalter served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1993 to 2011. During a 1994 campaign for North Fulton county commissioner, Burkhalter helped distribute a racist campaign flyer right before the election that distorted the image of Gordon Joyner, the Democratic incumbent who is Black.
According to a lawsuit at the time, Burkhalter and others discussed how "white voters in North Fulton County were unaware that Gordon Joyner is black." The flyers, more than 100,000 of which they distributed to white voters, darkened Joyner's skin, painted on an afro, distorted one eye, and made his lips thicker, according to the filings.
As a result of that lawsuit and an ethics investigation, Burkhalter said he authorized payment for the flyer and covered up the payment in violation of Georgia House ethics laws. He paid a civil penalty for it and apologized to Joyner.
Menendez said that Burkhalter did not disclose any of this to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which vets nominees for the State Department and ambassadorships.
When Trump nominated Burkhalter, "I immediately was stunned, shocked, dismayed, saddened, and very, very hurt," Joyner told the Washington Post, which first received Menendez's letter and the documents collected in his office's investigation.
It was a libel lawsuit from Joyner, who ultimately won the 1994 race and is now a lawyer in private practice, that launched the probe into Burkhalter at the time. The flyer faced backlash back then, with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial slamming it as a "racist hit piece."
But its resurfacing now comes as the president struggles to respond to the reinvigorated conversation on racism in America, facing strong criticism for attacking Black Lives Matter and praising supporters in a video where one white supporter chants "white power" as "great people." The White House later said Trump didn't hear the chant, and he has since deleted the tweet.
Burkhalter is just the latest Trump pick for an ambassadorship with a controversial history that imperils their nomination. Most recently, he appointed Lee Rizzuto, a controversial Republican donor and heir to the Conair Corporation fortune, to head the U.S. consulate general in Bermuda after Republicans and Democrats blocked his nomination to be ambassador to Barbados and other Caribbean island countries over his controversial tweets promoting conspiracy theories and trashing politicians.