The Fayette County Republican Party can claim a half victory in a battle that has been waged for over two years with two members of its own party.
The State Election Board voted to bind the case against former Fayette County GOP chairman Lane Watts to the State Attorney General’s office for further investigation and possible prosecution. Local party leaders said it’s only a partial victory because they also wanted to see Watts’ mother, Marilyn, removed from her post as chairman of the Fayette County Board of Elections.
State Election Board investigator Chris Harvey said that after his long investigation, he felt that there was enough validity to the charge of voter fraud against Lane Watts to bind it over to the AG’s office, but that he could find nothing to prove that Marilyn Watts had violated voter registration laws and recommended the charges against her be dismissed.
According to local attorney Richard Hobbs, who has filed the complaint against both Watts family members, the hearing was “a waste of my time,” saying that “Whether she did something ethical or unethical wasn’t addressed. Just whether she violated voter registration laws. Having knowledge of it is, I think, certainly a conspiracy to the crime. It’s embarrassing.”
Hobbs was also upset with the 18-month long investigation.
Current county Republican chairman Scott Fabricius was equally upset.
“We’re still proceeding with our lawsuit to get her removed for cause.”
Fabricius said he felt it was more important to have Marilyn Watts removed from the Fayette County Board of Elections, where she is the chairman, than to have Lane bound over to the AG’s office.
“She’s still holding her position and there’s a cloud of doubt existing as long as she remains in that position.”
The fracture within the GOP erupted in March 2012 when members of the party demanded an investigation into allegations that then-county GOP chairman Watts had falsified information on his voter registration card in order to stay in a specific district and for what they called “conduct detrimental to the best interests of the Georgia Republican Party” and gave Watts a 45-day window to respond to the charges.
Ultimately, a board of elections hearing was slated 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 (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 GOP charge, on September 27, 2011, Watts changed his voter registration 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 the day of the March 10, 2012 county convention, Lane Watts appeared and announced he had moved back to his Patricia Lane residence from Peachtree City after being elected at the Peachtree City address.
The GOP charges noted that despite the change of address it was “general knowledge” that he still lived at the Patricia Lane address.
Harvey said that in his investigation, he could find nothing to confirm that Watts had lived at the Gelding Garth Lane. In fact, there were witnesses, two residents of the address and next door neighbor who didn’t know who Lane Watts was. That was also the testimony given during the Fayette County Board of Elections hearing.
An official hearing on the matter was set for August 13 before the Board of Elections. Prior to that the board- consisting only of members Addison Lester and Darryl Hicks- voted to authorize Board of Elections supervisor Tom Sawyer to issue subpoenas related to the hearing. Attorney for the GOP challenge Richard Hobbs subpoenaed six people, including both Lane Watts and his mother Marilyn (who, as a member of the board of elections had recused herself from the hearing board). Also subpoenaed were Bradford P. Parsons, Jr., Christian Alfaro and Patricia Clemmons. Parsons and Alfaro had been renting the home at 109 Gelding Garth Lane from September 2011 to March 2012 and testified that during that period, though they did lease the property from Marilyn Watts, Lane Watts never lived at that location with them. Clemmons, as Alfaro’s fiancee and a next door neighbor, also testified that Watts never lived at the address.
Neither Lane or Marilyn Watts showed up for the hearing, saying through their attorney John Sparks that they didn’t believe the board had the authority to hold the hearing, that board of elections director Tom Sawyer didn’t have the authority to issue subpoenas and that “the matter is an internal problem within the Fayette County Republican Party. They tried to remove Mr. Watts on July 17 within the party’s mechanism and when that failed, they have this hearing.”
Just before the hearing, Sparks had filed a motion to dismiss the proceedings “due to the fact that the allegations made in the challenge did not relate to the current voter registration of Mr. Watts.” The board denied the motion as moot since the law, O.C.G.A. 21-2-229 provides that “upon such challenge being filed with the board of registrars, the registrars shall set a hearing on such a challenge.”
Two weeks after the hearing, the Board of Elections came back with a decision that said Watts had given proof of residency and the situation had been rectified. They did, however, feel strongly enough about the evidence to forward their findings to the District Attorney Scott Ballard’s office for investigation into whether Watts committed voter fraud.
Harvey said that Ballard’s office contacted him to find out what the process was and Harvey told him that the State Elections Board often handled these kind of matters and resolved them.
“Ballard then sent it to me and asked that we handle it, in lieu of criminal prosecution,” said Harvey.
At the state hearing, Sparks said the situation was actually a dispute between the Watts family and Hobbs and that Hobbs began a “continuing campaign of harassment.”
Sparks said that he had at least three witnesses that would testify that Lane Watts did live at the Peachtree City address and that they had visited him there. Sparks said Harvey didn’t know about those witnesses until this past week.
Sparks said that months after the original decision, the board of elections opted to “remove the superfluous language” and just keep the statement to the findings of the board. The superfluous language referred to the statement that they felt the matter warranted being forwarded to the District Attorney’s office.
In between that time, the new GOP board members voted to nominate a new member to the board of elections in place of Marilyn Watts - which Fabricius said was within their purview to do- and asked the Fayette County Board of Commissioners to confirm their selection. Mrs. Watts obtained at temporary restraining order to prevent the decision, which was served to commissioners just before the meeting. Fabricius, on behalf of the party, filed a petition to remove Marilyn Watts from the board of elections. Since that time, she has filed a civil suit against the GOP to keep her seat.
Lane Watts has also filed suit against five members of the GOP charging them with defamation of character after the long battle for control of the party leadership. Watts suit named Brown, former Peachtree City councilman 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.”
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.
Hobbs said before the state board that he believed Marilyn Watts aided her son’s case by “keeping out subpoenas.”
“And then she accepted service on behalf of the board of elections. She’s assisting her son in quashing the subpoenas. She then hired Mr. Sparks to represent her and he advised her not to testify and to ignore the subpoenas. She’s a member of the board of elections, she was subpoenaed by her board to come to court she chose not to come. I don’t care what her attorney said. That subpoena was valid and she ignored it.”
Fabricius testified that, since that hearing, a friend of Mr. Watts, Keegan Overton, had come forward to say that they had both lied on the voter registration cards also using the Garth Gelding Lane address.
“Mr Sparks would have to you ignore this. He came forward to say he filed a false affidavit with the Fayette County Board of Elections. He came forward to say not only had he falsely registered, Mrs. Watts knew about it and when he question her about it, she said that ‘I sit on the board of elections. It’s okay, Lane owns that house.’ These are reasons that require her to be bound over.”
Despite statements from Hobbs and Fabricius, the state board of elections decided to dismiss the complaint against Marilyn Watts.