Troup County judge set to rule in Ricky Wolfe, Ron McClellan libel suit
LaGRANGE — A Troup County Superior Court judge announced at a hearing Wednesday he may rule next month on a libel lawsuit brought by a former county commissioner against a local blogger.
Former Commission Chairman Ricky Wolfe is suing West Point resident Ron McClellan, who operates the Facebook page Troup County Citizen, for making accusations of embezzlement, conversion of public funds and theft.
Wolfe’s attorney, Tommy Greer of a Carrollton-based law firm, and McClellan, representing himself, were both given the opportunity to present disputed facts in the case at Wednesday’s hearing before Superior Court Judge Jack Kirby.
Speaking first, Greer said he disputes no facts in the case and that, “the overarching position is that Mr. McClellan made out our argument for us on every element.
“Mr. McClellan accused Mr. Wolfe of committing crimes for which he could go to jail,” Greer continued. “Mr. McClellan admits that he knew when he made the statements they were crimes for which (Mr. Wolfe) could go to jail and that he stands by those today.”
The statements to which Greer referred were made on McClellan’s Troup County Citizen Facebook page and LaGrange Daily News website, Greer said.
“On those sites,” Greer said, “he accused him of stealing, running a Swiss bank account with public funds, being crooked, embezzling, ‘our tax dollars are Ricky’s retirement plan,’ taking public money for private use, money laundering, theft of money not his and cleaning it up … funneling Callaway (Foundation) grant money into his own pocket, … and then he says at the end, ‘I admit that I said all of that and I stand by it today.’”
Under Georgia law, a plaintiff must prove actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth to establish libel. In January, Wolfe provided McClellan with more than 1,700 personal records, including bank statements, tax returns and other personal financial documents. McClellan has not entered a single document into evidence as proof of his claims that Wolfe was violating the law. Greer argued that this proves his case for reckless disregard, and thus libel.
McClellan told the judge he believes that because Wolfe is a public figure, he has the right to make claims and question his actions.
“For one thing, he’s making a big deal about the fact that you can’t accuse a public official of a crime and stuff like that, but it happens every day,” McClellan told the judge. “Anybody who watches the news, sees people, media entities, talking about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton knows that that’s what happens when you’re a public official.”
The judge replied, “Are you telling me that you believe that Georgia law is that you can accuse a public figure of criminal conduct with impunity?”
“No, not with impunity,” McClellan answered. “… (Wolfe) has admitted he’s given me 1,700 pages of financial documents and another 300 pages of his various filings and stuff like that. I’m not an attorney. I’m not an accountant. It takes me a while to go through this stuff. I’ve got to look up everything.”
“Are you suggesting you have documents this morning that are proof of the statements that you made?” asked the judge.
“I didn’t bring any proof because I was just here to fight the summary judgment,” McClellan said. “The one thing he has not established, even though he keeps saying it, is — he keeps flip-flopping, he makes an argument for libel per se, and then tries to flip it into actual malice, and it’s not. I’m not even sure it meets the standard of libel per se. For one thing, he’s a public figure, and then there’s the addition that this is in the matter of public interest, which alters things too.”
The judge said, “It means that he has to prove actual malice and his argument is that he’s proving actual malice by showing that you published these things with reckless disregard for the truth.”
McClellan went on to quote a Fox News contributor and New Jersey Superior Court judge as anecdotal evidence to justify his claims against Wolfe.
“With regard to saying you can’t accuse people of crimes, Judge (Andrew) Napolitano (a Fox News judicial analyst) specifically says about Hillary Clinton, who hasn’t been found guilty of anything yet or charged with anything yet … this is a superior court judge, a media entity, talking about a public figure here — talking as a matter of public interest, he says, ‘What I’ve seen here has persuaded me beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty that Clinton provided a trail of assistance to terrorists and lied in the venue where the law required her to be truthful.’ There’s nothing ambiguous about that. He accuses her of a serious crime.”
“Did she sue him?” asked Judge Kirby.
“Well, there you go, that’s the difference,” the judge said.
Following oral arguments from both sides, the judge told Greer that he has five days to file any new evidence in response to McClellan’s argument, and after that filing, McClellan will have five more days to file any evidence pertaining to any evidence filed by Greer.
“I’ll make my ruling thereafter,” the judge said.