Local GOP hit with $30K legal fees award

Judge rules party officials’ lawsuit was latest effort to ‘harass’ Watts

Local GOP hit with $30K legal fees award

A senior judge has called a lawsuit filed by the Fayette County Republican Party, its former chairman and a local attorney “abusive and frivolous” litigation and awarded $30,000 in legal fees to Fayette County, which defended the lawsuit.

The lawsuit involved former Fayette County Board of Elections member Marilyn Watts, a longtime county GOP member, in actions spanning several years. The lawsuit against her in her capacity as elections board member was brought by the Fayette County Republican Party (FCRP) and Chairman Scott Fabricius, and their attorney Richard Hobbs.

Fayette County Superior Court Judge Stephen Boswell in a Jan. 3 ruling found that FCRP and Fabricius had failed to present evidence of her misconduct and were acting to harass Watts and her family.

“The facts clearly show that petitioners’ [FCRP and Fabricius] and Hobbs’ actions were merely the latest efforts to harass the respondent [Watts] with unfounded and meritless allegations,” Judge Boswell ruled as a matter of law. “Additionally, petitioners stipulated that they offered perjured evidence against [Watts]. … it appears that Hobbs’ conduct in filing or having the verification filed … was suspect at best and suborning perjury at worst.”

The $30,000 award will go to Fayette County’s general fund since the county supplied legal representation during the time Watts served on the Fayette County Board of Elections. Watts will receive none of the award.

Fabricius and FCRP attempted to remove Watts from her position on the elections board prior to the end of her term (in 2016) by nominating another person for the position even though there was no vacancy, the court said.

Watts then filed for and received a temporary restraining order (TRO) in 2013 that prevented the Fayette County Commission from honoring the FCRP request that she be removed.

“I’ve been vindicated once again,” Marilyn Watts said on Monday. “It was a frivolous suit and this proves it. There was no validity to the complaints against me. I never had any complaints. People need to be penalized for bringing frivolous lawsuits. I feel like I’ve been disgraced for the past four or five years based on false affidavits.”

According to the judge’s ruling in the Jan. 3 decision, the local GOP leadership utterly failed to make their case against Watts.

“Instead, the undisputed evidence showed that (Watts) did an exemplary job as a member of the board of elections. (FCRP) failed to present an evidence of any nonfeasance, misfeasance or malfeasance of (Watts) ‘which specially related to and affected the administation of the office (of the board of elections).’ Moreover, (FCRP) failed to present any evidence of any act or failure of (Watts) which was ‘of a substantial nature, directly affecting the rights and interest of the public,’” the court said.

The conclusion of the court was that “this action, therefore, was completely frivolous, in that is was based upon allegations against (Watts’) son (Lane Watts) rather than against (Watts), was based on a false verification and was based in part upon allegations … over which only the Governor has jurisdiction. Furthermore, this action was merely the latest effort by FCRP and Hobbs to harass (Watts) and her family. As such, if falls squarely into the intent of (state law) as abusive and frivolous litigation.”

The court cited a number of items offered by FCRP as being inadmissible hearsay.

Commenting on the court’s ruling, Fabricius on Tuesday said FCRP will seek a set-aside of the order and appeal the decision if necessary.

“Statements made in the ruling concerning issues such as fraud or perjury (on the part of FCRP or Fabricius) are not correct,” Fabricius said. “Those were allegations made by the other side, with which we disagree and for which there is no evidence.”

The monetary award by the court was based on expenses incurred from several proceedings. The Jan. 3 ruling includes references to previous cases. Addressing that, and for purposes of clarity and to establish a timeline, Watts explained that she served on the elections board from 1998-2011. She was subsequently appointed for another term in 2012 and served until 2016.

Watts said it was in 2013, when Fabricius became FCRP chairman, that the party discussed her appointment and wanted someone else to serve on the elections board. FCRP then sent a letter to the Fayette County Commission in that regard. Watts responded by filing, and receiving, the TRO.

It was in June 2012 that attorney Richard Hobbs filed a challenge with the Fayette County Board of Elections dealing with the residency status of her son, Lane Watts, who had been serving as a party official.

Lane Watts in February of this year was cited for violations of state election laws, with the Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings assessing a civil penalty of $5,000. Marilyn Watts on Monday said that action will be appealed.

According to the hearing document filed Feb. 6 by Administrative Law Judge Ronit Walker, the decision resulted in Watts being ordered to pay a civil penalty of $5,000, to cease and desist from committing further violations and to be publicly reprimanded for his conduct.

From his perspective, Fabricius questioned the timing of the discovery of the Jan. 3 ruling, since both parties became aware of it just earlier this week, in relation to the Feb. 6 decision concerning Lane Watts.

“It can’t be frivolous if it was voter fraud,” Fabricius said.