County to pursue legal fees in Watts-GOP dispute

Calling it an issue of fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers of the county, the County Board of Commissioners chose to ignore a request from the Fayette County Republican Party to forego attorney fees as part of the push to remove Marilyn Watts from the Board of Elections in a fight that dates back to 2011.

A letter sent to the Board of Commissioners from the Fayette County Republican Party laid out why they thought legal fees should not be sought, even though they had lost at trial. In September 2011, Lane Watts filed what was later ruled to be a fraudulent residency application. He would be elected as a delegate at a rental home in Peachtree City, then seek election as a delegate for the district of the Fayetteville home he shared with his mother, Marilyn.

Tying the efforts to remove Marilyn from the Board of Elections to the recent decision by an administrative law judge that Lane was guilty of voter fraud, the Fayette County Republican Party called the appointment by Lane, who was Chairman of the Party at the time, of his mother to be the Party’s Representative to the Board of Elections improper, as he would have been an “unqualified and illegal elector.”

As a member of the Board of Elections, the Board of Commissioners had voted to help pay for Marilyn’s defense. A Superior Court judge found the petitioner, the Fayette County Republican Party, failed to present evidence for cause to dismiss Marilyn Watts from the Board of Election and deemed it a frivolous lawsuit. In February 2016, the sitting Board voted to instruct the County Attorney to seek legal fees to be returned to taxpayers.

“Here’s the question: You got $30,000 in a judgement, do you give it away?” asked John Sparks, the lawyer who represented Marilyn Watts at trial. “Do you make the people who brought this frivolous lawsuit reimburse the citizens of Fayette County? Perhaps that’ll be enough that they stop this foolishness and get on with the business of being a political party and y’all can get on with business.”

Both sides sought to clarify a number of details related to both court cases, but the Board of Commissioners ultimately agreed that it was not incumbent on them to rehash trial proceedings.

“This is not a court. We’re not here to make a judgement right, wrong, or indifferent to either side,” said Commissioner Randy Ognio. “We’re just here to reply to the letter than was sent.”

Commissioner Charles Rousseau agreed.

“We spent taxpayer dollars as I understand it, rightly or wrongly. We’re way past that, and now we have an obligation,” said Rousseau. “We want to seek reimbursement of the taxpayers’ dollars. Period.”

Commissioner Steve Brown, who had also voted against seeking legal fees in the Feb. 2016 vote, disagreed, saying the lawsuit had been brought because of legitimate concerns on the part of the Party.

“There’s enough cloudy, dark stuff in this case that we should be very careful in saying we’re going to go back and we’re going to chase after citizens who raise valid complaints,” said Brown, taking exception to the case being ruled frivolous. “I think frivolous left the barn a long time ago. Frivolous is not coming back any time soon.

“(The Party is) raising a valid concern. If there’s any doubt, even an ounce of doubt, then you shouldn’t go after the citizen.”
Brown made a motion to not seek the legal fees.

“Chalk that up to protecting liberty and the openness of our system and telling our citizens that they do have a right without threat of petitioning their local government,” said Brown.

His motion died for lack of a second, meaning the County will go forward with seeking legal fees from the Fayette County Republican Party.

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Christopher Dunn has been the sports editor for Fayette Newspapers since 2011, in addition to running Fayette Game Day magazine. He is a graduate of Fayette County schools, as well as a graduate of Georgia State University with a degree in journalism. Follow him on twitter @fayettesports.


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