As the S.C. House returns next month to debate a proposed rule that critics say would discourage citizen testimony before legislative committees, an incoming freshman representative is pursuing defamation lawsuits against two supporters of his opponent in the 2012 race.
Newly elected Rep. Greg Duckworth, R-Horry, filed separate suits in December 2012 against an Horry County couple, Charles Collins and Bren Gibson, contending they defamed him in separate online letters to the editor, which asked readers to support then-Rep. Tracy Edge in the June 2012 Republican primary.
Gibson is president of a nonprofit citizens’ group known as Conservatives for Responsible Government. Collins heads communications for the group, which describes itself in organizational literature as “promoting legislative accountability and effectiveness through transparency throughout all levels of our local, state and federal government.”
The letters to the editor that are the subject of the lawsuits do not mention the organization. Collins toldThe Nerve he and his wife were not members of the group when the letters were written.
“This is nothing more than vindictiveness because he (Duckworth) thought we cost him the race the last time around,” Collins said about the suits.
Added Gibson, “Through this suit, he has been successful in taking away the voice of the people.”
Edge, who was first elected to the House in 1996, defeated Duckworth in the June 2012 primary but lost to him in this year’s June primary. Duckworth faced no formal opposition in this month’s general election for the two-year seat.
The suits allege that Collins and Gibson defamed Duckworth by claiming in letters to the editor in the online edition of the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News that Duckworth, who runs a landscape architectural and land planning firm, used his position as a North Myrtle Beach City Council member to make money for his business.
Collins and Gibson in court papers deny they defamed Duckworth and contend that a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling protects political speech. They also claim in court papers that Duckworth did not follow state law on several occasions in recusing himself from votes or public discussions while on City Council.
The couple on Oct. 28 filed a motion in Horry County Circuit Court seeking to throw out the suits.
Duckworth declined comment when contacted Thursday by The Nerve, referring questions to his attorney, Billy Monckton of Myrtle Beach, who could not be reached for comment.
With his election earlier this month, Duckworth will be joining the Horry County delegation, which includes GOP state Sen. Greg Hembree, the former solicitor for Horry and Georgetown counties and a law partner with Monckton.
“This is not only an attempt to suppress speech, but the most important kind of speech – political speech,” said Myrtle Beach attorney Reese Boyd, who is representing Collins and Gibson, when contacted Friday by The Nerve about the lawsuits. “If a State House member can sue a member of the general public for a letter to the editor of the type that is at issue here, then the 1st Amendment has been turned on its head, and it means nothing.”
In a June 7, 2012, letter published on myrtlebeachonline.com and titled, “Return Tracy Edge to state House,” Collins said Duckworth had been on City Council for 11 years and “used his position for personal gain,” claiming that Duckworth, as a subcontractor, “obtained a significant portion” of funds spent on a sports complex project approved by City Council. Although Collins noted that Duckworth abstained from voting on the project, he wrote that Duckworth was “touted as a major part of the design team.”
“He has mainly worked to support crony capitalism within the council by voting his support of projects that have enhanced his wealth and the wealth of others on the council,” Collins wrote.
Gibson wrote in her June 9, 2012, online letter, titled, “Re-elect Edge, a man of integrity,” that Duckworth “obtained many contracts to work on city contracts, the latest being the new sports complex in North Myrtle Beach,” adding, “In most states, Mr. Duckworth would be in violation of public servant ethics laws because of his position on City Council.”
Duckworth filed separate defamation lawsuits on Dec. 5, 2012, against Gibson and Collins, contending in each that the allegations in their letters were false, and that publication of the letters was “done with actual or implied malice.”
The suits contend Gibson and Collins each “intentionally, recklessly, willfully inflicted severe emotional distress and was certain that such distress would result from conduct towards the Plaintiff,” adding, “The conduct of the Defendant was so extreme and outrageous that it exceeds all possible bounds of decency and is regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in today’s society.”
The suits seek unspecified actual and punitive damages.
In their official responses, Gibson and Collins denied that the statements in their letters were false, and that because Duckworth was a public official campaigning for public office when the letters were written, he is considered a “public official” and “public figure” under the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
The justices ruled in that case that to prove a defamation or libel case, the public official bringing the suit must show that the published allegations not only were false, but that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” meaning that he either knew before publication that the allegations were false, or published it with “reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The ruling established a higher standard of proof for public officials compared to defamation or libel cases brought by private individuals.
In another legal issue connected to the defamation suits, Duckworth admitted in a written response to questions from Gibson and Collins that although he recused himself from discussion on various matters at a May 2, 2011, North Myrtle Beach City Council meeting, the minutes of that meeting did not contain, as required by state ethics law, a written statement from him giving his reason for the recusal.
That’s important, according to Boyd, because the public has a right to know why officials decided not to participate in certain votes or discussions.
“You’re supposed to explain why you have a conflict, and that needs to be part of the record,” he said.
House members are expected to discuss rule changes dealing with legislative ethics and other matters at the chamber’s post-election organizational meeting on Dec. 2 and 3. The heightened attention to rules comes in the wake of former House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s resignation from office following his guilty plea last month to six charges of spending campaign funds on personal expenses.
One of the proposed House rules, as The Nerve reported Friday, would require citizens who want to testify before House committees to be first sworn in under oath, and that anyone deliberately giving false testimony would be guilty of contempt of the General Assembly, a felony punishable by up to five years in state prison.
Some citizen activists, however, believe the proposed rule – authored by GOP Reps. Bruce Bannister of Greenville County and the House majority leader, Kris Crawford of Florence County and Alan Clemmons of Horry County – could be used by lawmakers to intimidate citizens they don’t like from testifying before their committees.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.