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Judge denies motion

Dispute involves campaign claims

POSTED: July 25, 2012 4:00 a.m.

A judge on Friday denied a motion for emergency injunction in the pending civil case against a candidate for Dawson County tax commissioner.

Attorney Chris Conowal filed the application July 17 on behalf of Shelly Townley Martin after Karin McKee refused to heed a cease-and-desist letter.

The letter ordered her to stop distributing campaign literature that makes reference to Martin, an attorney.

McKee is challenging two-term tax commissioner Linda Townley, Martin's mother, in next week's Republican primary.

Senior Judge John Girardeau denied the injunction after McKee's attorney, Larry Oldham, argued that Martin's counsel had failed to properly file the motion.

The motion required both the plaintiff and her attorney to verify they had read the claim under oath.

"The suit remains pending and if their verification is filed within 10 days, the suit may proceed," Girardeau said.

While the outcome was unfortunate for his client, Conowal said the hearing made clear that information McKee has passed as truth during her campaign is inaccurate.

According to the campaign materials, the tax commissioner's office has paid Martin fees for collections services the last three years.

Martin's firm is paid $55 to send the first letter to delinquent taxpayers, the same amount paid to Government Tax Services. For research and the second letter, Martin is paid $140, while Government Tax Services receives $110.

McKee said the inconsistencies involve additional amounts in Martin's contract, including $95 for each sheriff tax deed, an estimated $31.22 reviewing files for excess proceeds and $31.25 for man hours incurred by the Dawson County Marshal's office.

McKee contends the total listed for Martin's services is $352.47 per parcel, compared to $165 per parcel for Government Tax Services.

However, Conowal based his calculations on the average price that Martin receives per parcel.

"The facts were revealed that Shelly's average fees for tax collection services have been $109 dollars per parcel while her competitor's fees have been about $127 per parcel," Conowal said in an e-mailed statement Saturday night.

"Yet, this fact had not been disclosed on any of Ms. McKee's publications that instead claimed as fact that Shelly's fees are almost 100 percent higher than such competitor's."

Friday's hearing followed a cease-and-desist letter McKee received on July 7 threatening a lawsuit over campaign information that Martin maintains has libeled, slandered and caused torturous interference with her business relations.

While McKee's campaign pamphlet does not specifically name Martin, it does say Townley as tax commissioner paid "her own daughter," a private attorney, more than $88,000 in legal fees in the last two years.

She did so, the pamphlet states, "without any type of competitive bidding process, costing the taxpayers of our county thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses."

The cease-and-desist letter challenges McKee's statements and demanded an immediate retraction, as well as an apology to Martin, who said the statements are misleading, deceptive and an attempt to "drag me into her politics."

According to Martin, the additional fees her law firm charges for collections are for work only an attorney can perform. She also said a competitive bidding process is not required.

McKee called Martin's complaint nothing more than "a political ploy to save her mother's skin at the worst or an overreaction on her part at best."

"Based on the way she has conducted herself, it is obvious to me that she is doing what she believes will be the best way to help her mother's re-election bid," McKee said.

"While I have no ill will towards her, requiring me to defend my right to free speech in a court of law was truly unnecessary and I hope she will reconsider her position."

Conowal said the suit is about "the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you, God."

"I fought to put an end to the spreading of anything but the whole truth. And but for a technicality, it's something I'm sure we would have gotten," Conowal said. "Despite the disappointing outcome, the judge sent a clear message before we left, not once but three times. He stated that there is a serious legal difference between making a defamatory opinion based on disclosed facts, and making defamatory opinions based on undisclosed facts.

"To me, this signaled what the judge believed the end result will likely be in the case. Therefore, although the battle was technically lost, a victory overall will later be won."

Girardeau said the political process involving libel and slander has historically been a tricky one for the judicial system.

"If the court was going to address inaccurate information, publically, then for a period proceeding at least two years of the general election, the court would be filled with lawsuits in dealing with the claims and cross-claims that are made in that atmosphere," he said.

 

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