Friday, October 24, 2014

Former Fayette Republican chair sues five members for defamation


By Pat Cooper

The problems between members of Fayette County’s Republican Party and its former chairman have once again heated up, with a lawsuit for slander in the works.
On September 6 former Fayette GOP leader Lane Watts filed suit against five members of his own party, charging them with defamation of character after a year-long battle for control of the party leadership.
According to the suit filed by Watts, party members Steve Brown, George Dienhart, Kenneth Murphy, Jim Richter and Michael Posey “on multiple occasions accused, orally and in writing, made statements to third-parties that Plaintiff was guilty of perjury” and “published defamatory statements.” However, the alleged statements don’t include anything that was said “before or to a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding” or “any statements made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law.”
The suit also claims that Watts is not a public figure or even a limited purpose public figure. Watts said the statements were made maliciously and didn’t relate to any matters of public interest nor were they for redress of a grievance.
Specific statements, times or dates the statements were alleged to have taken place or the persons to whom the statements were made were not in the suit’s petition.
For over a year there has been a power struggle amongst the leadership of the party with both sides making accusations from incompetence to fabrication and voter fraud.
In March 2012, Republican Party members demanded an investigation into allegations that Watts had falsified
information on his voter registration card in order to stay in a specific district and for other conduct they called “conduct detrimental to the best interests of the Georgia Republican Party.”
Ultimately, a Board of Elections hearing was held to determine if Watts had committed voter fraud.
The big question wrapped around the matter of Watts’ actual address during the voting for delegates at both the local and county precinct levels.
Watts was living on Patricia Lane in Fayetteville with his mother, Marilyn Watts (a member of the Fayette County Board of Elections) when Governor Nathan Deal signed a law redistricting Georgia’s congressional districts in order to add one more district. The redrawing of the vote/elector maps meant that Watts address was now going to be in the 13th District and not the 3rd District.
According to the charge, on September 27, 2011, Watts changed his voter registration on his election in an application to the Georgia Secretary of State which affirmed, under oath, that he resided on Gelding Garth Lane in Peachtree City, 15 days after his district changed to the 13th.”
The appeal alleged that the property at that address was under lease by a family completely unassociated with Watts except for a landlord/tennant relationship. Watts was asked to provide copies of ‘all leases’ to prove who had the legal right to live at the property.
On February 18, Watts was elected as a delegate to the county convention by members of the 11th Precinct in the 3rd Congressional District, based on that Peachtree City address.
Fayette County commissioner Steve Brown and Peachtree City councilman George Dienhart were among the five signers of the appeal and Brown had already had his own run-in with Watts over his mother Marilyn.
Research into the records, according to the appellants, showed that Lane Watts had changed his residency to the 11th District. The appeal noted that despite the change of address it was “general knowledge” that he still lived at the Patricia Lane address.
Members went to the Peachtree City address and spoke with neighbors who said that Lane Watts had never lived there.
On the day of the March 10 county convention, Watts appeared and announced he had moved back to his Patricia Lane residence.
“When asked when this occurred, he said that the application to change residency had occurred that very day. He said he had moved out of that residence in February.
“This one address changed everything. Lane Watts was elected as a delegate of the 11th Precinct, 3rd District. He then claims to have moved his residency and therefore, was no longer a qualified elector from the 11th Precinct. He admitted he did not live in the 11th at the time of the convention, which means he was no longer a qualified elector/delegate from the 11th, and therefore, unable to serve as a delegate to the convention,” Brown said.
Brown challenged Watts’ residency credentials at the county convention but the meeting was adjourned without ruling against him and they rejected the challenge to the credentials.
At the Board of Elections hearing, two witnesses who lived at the Gelding Garth Lane address during the time frame of September 2011 through March 2012 all said they did not know Watts and that he never lived at the residence while they were there.
Two weeks later, the Board of Elections came back with a decision that said though Watts won the round to stay on the voter rolls, they were going to forward their findings to the District Attorney’s office for their investigation into whether Watts committed voter fraud.
On July 17, the board of directors of the Fayette GOP held a hearing to decide whether Watts would remain in place as the chairman, under the circumstances.
After nearly three and a half-hours of discussion, the vote was called and the result was 25-16, with one abstention, of the 42 voting members present, that Watts be removed from office. However, since the vote needed to be a two-thirds majority to pass, Watts remained in place.
Watts, on Tuesday night after the Peachtree City Rotary Forum, talked little about the suit, but said he had “given them the opportunity to do the right thing, but they didn’t. They slandered me when they said I perjured myself.”
Dienhart called it “a nuisance suit” and Brown said it was “sad when he can’t even point out specific instances of what was said and when and by or to whom.”


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