Judge sues for defamation

Published 10:38 am Thursday, October 13, 2016

Defendant says suit is retaliation

Ironton Municipal Court Judge O. Clark Collins Jr., who is running for Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge, is taking action over claims regarding whether or not his court operates a drug diversion program.

In a written statement announcing the lawsuit, Collins said he “filed a defamation lawsuit to protect Lawrence County voters from being defrauded by dishonest and misleading campaign attacks.”

Listed as the defendants in the lawsuit that was filed Wednesday in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court are the Informed Citizens of Lawrence County Facebook page c/o Joshua M. Wheeler as the alleged administrator; Joshua M. Wheeler himself; James T. Holt IV, a local attorney accused of having ties to the Informed Citizens page and the cousin of Andy Ballard, Collins’ opponent for common pleas judge seat; and anyone who may also be involved with the Facebook page, listed as John Does.

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The primary focus of the lawsuit are allegations that, after the Meet the Candidates political forum in Burlington on Sept. 22, social media posts on the Informed Citizens page and comments by Holt accused Collins of lying about operating a drug court.

During the forum, Ballard’s main platform was his desire to institute a program in which first time low-level felony drug users would have the opportunity to go through a structured treatment program instead of being incarcerated, while Collins contended he has operated a drug court diversion program since 2000. According to the lawsuit, Collins’ program “gives minor offense, first-time drug offenders the opportunity to go through a structured treatment program instead of being incarcerated.”

Copies of transcripts of Ballard’s and Collins’ remarks regarding the issue from that night were attached to the complaint.

According to the lawsuit, shortly after the Meet the Candidates Night, “Holt began to publicly accuse Collins of lying about having a drug court or diversion program.”

Copies of Facebook posts were attached to the complaint.

“On Sept. 30, 2016, the defendants began publishing a video that repeatedly asserts that Collins told a ‘bold-faced lie,’ told a ‘lie’ and made a ‘bogus’ claim,” about having a drug court, the complaint states.

The suit also alleges the video claims that “Collins is a liar because ‘no judge has ever petitioned for the operation of a graduated drug court in Lawrence County’ and the Ironton Municipal Court diversion program has not been ‘certified’ as a drug court.”

Screen shots of the video were also attached to the complaint. Also attached to the complaint is a copy of a grant application for 1999-2000 seeking funds from the Ohio Bureau of Community Sanctions.

Holt responded to the lawsuit by saying it is retaliation for his part in submitting information to Ironton public officials about municipal court employees’ alleged misuse of city funds.

“This lawsuit is the desperate action of a desperate candidate. It appears that this is the response you receive from those in power when you tell the truth and attempt to hold our public officials accountable in Lawrence County,” Holt said in a written statement. “Josh Wheeler and I fully intend to defend against Clark Collins’s baseless lawsuit and protect the rights of individuals to share their opinions and factual truths about public officials in Lawrence County. Furthermore, I intend to win this lawsuit and seek repayment of any costs incurred due to Clark Collins’s frivolous suit.

“… I also believe this lawsuit is motivated by the fact that I submitted evidence of Ironton Municipal Court employees participating in campaign activities and putting up political signs while on the clock and being paid with public monies, which benefitted the campaigns of Clark Collins and his son. This evidence was delivered to Ironton City officials on September 20, 2016, to investigate and determine if the Court employees’ political actions were a misuse of public funds.”

Holt also defended his position on the status of the court’s program.

“The grant attached to Mr. Collins’ lawsuit states, with certainty, that his court implemented a program ‘to decrease incarceration in the Lawrence County Jail’ and ‘provide community based sentencing alternatives and support services which will reduce jail incarceration,’” Holt said. “At no time does the grant mention a ‘therapeutically oriented judicial approach to providing court supervision and appropriate treatment to individuals,’ which is the language utilized by the Ohio Supreme Court when defining a ‘specialized docket,’ such as a drug court.

“I have practiced law in Lawrence County for most of my professional career and have had dozens of cases in Mr. Collins’ Court. At no time did I ever hear about or witness a ‘drug court’ in Ironton Municipal Court that focuses on a therapeutically oriented judicial approach. What I did witness was a probation program not unlike any other criminal court I’ve practiced in. I invite the community to talk with the attorneys who have practiced in Ironton Municipal Court and speak to the addiction/mental health treatment providers in our area and ask them if Mr. Collins operates a ‘drug court.’ I believe you’ll find an answer similar to what I have expressed.”

The lawsuit further states that the defendants “intentionally and maliciously published all of their false statements to Lawrence County voters with the express purpose and with the effect of harming Collins’ reputation and good name in order to defraud voters into voting for his opponent in the Nov. 8, 2016, general election, the defendants made all of these false statements with the knowledge that the statements were false and/or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of such statements” and that the “lies did in fact harm Collins’ reputation.”

Holt said he stands by his opinion of the judge and his court policies.

“Mr. Collins is a public figure and I have a Constitutional right to comment on his actions,” Holt said. “Due to the fact that he filed a defamation suit, Mr. Collins’ own character will be at issue as well, and I put my faith in the legal process and look forward to litigating this matter.”

The lawsuit also challenges the validity of the Informed Citizens Facebook page, which is alleged to be “a group of anonymous individuals who oppose Collins and support his opponent Andy Ballard,” and that the site is actually a political action committee but has not filed a “designation of treasurer or finance reports as required by Ohio law.”

In his statement, Collins said the Informed Citizens of Lawrence County “have not filed with the Lawrence County Board of Elections or with the Secretary of State as required by state laws governing political entities.”

The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages in an amount in excess of $25,000 to be determined at trial, punitive damages in an amount in excess of $25,000 to be determined at trial, attorney fees and costs and any such other relief.

Collins was contacted for additional comment but he declined, referencing his prepared statement.

Collins is being represented by Columbus-based attorney Donald Brey.