Two elected officials who co-filed a lawsuit against the city two years ago have agreed to pay $17,000 to the Columbus Consolidated Government for legal fees.
Columbus Council approved a settlement agreement between Marshal Greg Countryman, Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop and the city following an executive session at a Tuesday meeting. Though the details of the agreement were not released at the meeting, the city provided a copy of the agreement to the Ledger-Enquirer.
According to the document, Bishop and Countryman have agreed to pay CCG a total of $8,500 each. The payments must be made within 90 days from the date the agreement was approved. After paying the funds, the plaintiffs can seek an amendment to an ordinance reinstating their access to city credit cards used to pay the legal bills, the agreement says.
The plaintiffs, whose signatures appear on the agreement, will repay a total $15,000 for money paid for legal fees using city credit cards, and $1,000 each to help pay the city’s attorney fees, according to Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
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The agreement “shall in no way be deemed an admission of fault or liability by any party,” according to the document. “... Bishop and Countryman and CCG desire to fully, finally and forever resolve any and all claims arising out of or relating to the disputes between the parties...”
Councilors Mike Baker, Jerry “Pops” Barnes, Glenn Davis, Bruce Huff, Judy Thomas, Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson and Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner-Pugh all voted for the agreement. Councilors Gary Allen, Walker Garrett and Skip Henderson were absent for the vote.
The agreement ends a long legal battle that began in 2015 when four elected officials sued the city and its top leaders over budgeting issues. Former Sheriff John Darr and former Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce also filed lawsuits.
Both Darr and Pierce subsequently lost their bids for reelection, and their successors, Sheriff Donna Tompkins and Superior Court Clerk Ann Hardman, promptly dismissed what little was left of the lawsuits.
In April, Superior Court Judge Philip T. Raymond III granted the city's motion for summary judgment in all aspects of the Countryman/Creighton Bishop lawsuit. All that remained to be resolved was the city’s counter-suit regarding attorney fees and who should pay them.
The city claimed that Countryman and Bishop improperly used their city-issued credit cards to charge $7,500 apiece to retain their attorneys. The plaintiffs' attorneys argued that, as elected officials, they had a right to spend their appropriated budgets as they saw fit.
Raymond denied the motion, ruling that there remains a "genuine issue of material fact," meaning it should be litigated in court.
"This court finds that there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the defendants' allegations that the plaintiffs were restricted from discretionary use of the credit cards; and that they willfully and intentionally violated their (city) Purchasing Card Program Cardholder Agreements," Raymond wrote. "The plaintiffs gave sworn affidavits that they were unaware of any such restrictions, and, on the face of the documents presented by the defendants themselves, no such restriction is immediately apparent. Therefore, these issues of material fact render summary judgment inapplicable."