Opinion

Mayor claims Columbus is a sheriffs' association 'test case' in Darr lawsuit against the city

MIKE OWEN

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

Sheriff John Darr sits down with the Ledger-Enquirer for an interview last year.
Sheriff John Darr sits down with the Ledger-Enquirer for an interview last year. mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Communications revealed in an affidavit Sheriff John Darr’s attorneys were forced to turn over to the city of Columbus’ attorneys indicate Darr’s lawsuit against the city is a “test case,” orchestrated with the Georgia Sheriff’s Association to broaden the powers of that office statewide, and at local taxpayers’ expense, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson alleges.

Terry Norris, executive director of the GSA, and Darr attorney Kellye Moore, who also serves as general counsel for the GSA, both say the mayor’s allegations are absurd. Darr called the mayor’s allegation “misinformation.”

“That’s just not true,” Darr said. “Unfortunately that’s just the kind of misinformation that the mayor likes to put out.”

Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce filed similar lawsuits against the city and its top leadership in November of 2014, charging that Tomlinson and other top city leaders, including Columbus Council, have underfunded their offices to the point that they cannot carry out their obligations and that they did so using improper budget procedures.

Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop co-filed a similar suit around the same time.

The affidavit Tomlinson says indicates the “test case” scenario came from the city’s recent motion for Judge Hilton Fuller to recuse himself from the case because of improper “ex parte” communication between Darr’s attorneys and the judge, without the defense’s knowledge.

Fuller did recuse himself last week, but he said it was to take care of his ailing wife.

“We are gravely concerned by the information that was revealed in this ex parte information,” Tomlinson said. “We now know that Muscogee County was selected as a test case. We know that Sheriff Darr’s lawyers also represent the Georgia Sheriff’s Association. In that affidavit we learned that they are pursuing this case so that they can learn about strategies.”

Tomlinson cited one specific passage in the affidavit that she said makes her point. In came from en email from Moore to Norris.

“‘Regardless of how this case comes out, there are some important strategies decisions that we have learned and that the other attorneys in the network, and Sheriffs, would benefit from knowing for any future budget disputes.’” Tomlinson read.

“We consider it troublesome that our taxpayers are paying for a test case for the Georgia Sheriff’s Association to expand their power and authority,” she said. “We have to stop and ask ourselves, why on Earth are Muscogee County taxpayers being required to pay for this?”

Darr’s attorney called Tomlinson’s allegation “100 percent completely untrue.”

“There is nothing in my affidavit that would support a statement like that from the mayor,” Moore said. “I’m astounded that she would make such an allegation with absolutely no factual basis for it.

There is a network

There is a relationship between all the attorneys representing Darr and Pierce and the GSA. That relationship is outlined in Howell’s affidavit.

Larry Walker and Moore are general counsel for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, and along with Kerry Howell, are the attorneys representing Darr. Howell is a member of a state-wide network of attorneys the GSA keeps to refer to when one of the state’s 159 sheriff’s needs legal advice or representation.

Walker and Moore’s law firm, Walker, Hulbert, Gray and Moore of Perry, Ga., is also general counsel for the Constitutional Officers Association of Georgia, (COAG) an organization that serves the other three constitutional officer positions in Georgia: clerk of Superior Court, Probate Judge and Tax Commissioner.

Bill Stone, a Blakely, Ga., attorney, is another of the GSA’s referral attorneys and represents Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce in her similar lawsuit against the city.

“We suspected the Georgia Sheriff’s Association was involved,” Tomlinson said. “I don’t know that we knew how broadly and boldly they were involved, and how directed it was to effectuate broad state-wide strategies for sheriffs everywhere.

“That was a huge surprise to us, but what was shocking was that there had been these ongoing ex parte communications.”

But Norris said there is no basis for the mayor’s allegations about Columbus being a “test case.”

“That’s ridiculous. There is no strategy that the Sheriff’s Association has engaged in with this case or any other,” Norris said. “It is not uncommon over the years to have similar cases in which there are disputes between counties and the sheriff regarding budget matters. I see no way that anybody could logically come up with any basis for (the allegations).”

Norris said using a network of attorneys around the state proves none of Tomlinson’s allegations. It is simply a common sense way for a large group of people in the same position to have access to attorneys familiar with the common challenges they all face.

“We have a network of attorneys across the state,” Norris said. “These attorneys are in place, they are somewhat skilled, most of them very skilled. Their whole purpose is, when we have cases like this in various parts of the state, to have a group of attorneys who understand the case law regarding the budget statue and the budget process and the relationship between county governments and the office of sheriff. It’s very simple. This case has been treated no differently than any other would have been.

Redactions

In addition to the section of the affidavit that Tomlinson cited, other communications that the attorney sent to Fuller, but initially redacted when sent to the city were:

“The referral attorneys attended formal training on the Constitutional Office of Sheriff and the protocol to be utilized in responding to legal matters with potential state-wide implications for the Office of Sheriff.”

In January of 2015, Moore emailed Norris with an update on the case.

“We, along with Sheriff Darr, continue to keep in mind the Office of Sheriff as we make our way through this litigation … I will keep you informed of any developments impacting the Office of Sheriff. We have a good team, and Larry and I are glad to have Kerry Howell on board. … Regardless of how this case comes out, there are some important strategies decisions that we have learned and that the other attorneys in the network, and Sheriffs, would benefit from knowing for any future budget disputes.”

In August of 2015, after the state Supreme Court declined the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits filed by Darr and Pierce, Moore emailed Norris to update him on that ruling, with copies sent to Walker, Howell and Stone, attorneys for both plaintiffs:

“I wanted to give the GSA and COAG a quick update on the status of the Sheriff’s and Superior Court Clerk’s cases in Muscogee County. …(a)s both of these cases have statewide implications for the Office of Sheriff and all constitutional officers, I will continue to keep you posted.”

Moore also wrote in the affidavit “The emails originate from me in my capacity as counsel to GSA and COAG and Sheriff Darr providing a statue update,” but the end of the sentence was redacted: “… on Sheriff John Darr’s and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce’s and their statewide implications for their Constitutional Offices.”

Price tag for taxpayers

To date, the legal fees facing the Consolidated Government are approaching $2 million, and is probably already over that, with work that has been performed but not yet billed.

To date, the city has paid Howell, one of Darr’s attorneys $129,022 with another $41,704 pending, which Columbus Council will vote on today, for a total of $170,226. Darr’s other attorney, Moore, with the law firm of Walker, Hulbert, Gray and Moore, has been paid $181,615, with another $31,560 pending, for a total of $213,175.

Pierce’s attorney, William Stone, with the firm of Boone and Stone, has been paid $157,171.

All of the plaintiff attorney fees are for services provided through November of last year.

In all, plaintiffs’ attorneys have billed the city for $540,552.

On the defense side, the city has paid much more to their lawyers, primarily because their billings are more up to date and the fact that they are representing about 15 defendants and the plaintiffs’ attorneys have but one client in each case, Tomlinson said. And they are also defending the Countryman-Bishop case, also.

To date in the Darr case, the city has paid Hatcher-Stubbs $359,518, The Schondelmayer Firm $339,420 and Hall, Booth and Smith $29,313, for a total of $728,251.

In the Pierce case, the city has paid Page, Scrantum, Sprouse, Tucker and Ford $370,478..

In the Countryman/Bishop case, the city has paid Hatcher-Stubbs $185,194, The Schondelmayer Firm $134,775 and Hall, Booth and Smith $4,705.

That brings the city’s total to date to $1.32 million and the total legal fee bill in the three cases to $1.86 million.

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