Commission votes to work out potential litigation with Bells

Published 9:23 am Thursday, April 12, 2012

By Fred Guarino
The Lowndes Signal

HAYNEVILLE — After meeting in executive session Monday, the Lowndes County Commission voted unanimously to try to work out potential litigation with Karl and Helenor Bell after the Bells and their attorneys disputed the details of a check written to the Commission that was returned for insufficient funds.

“I want this commission to understand this … we’re here to ask for a retraction today. We want a retraction printed in the newspaper as soon as possible within 10 days,” said Blaine Stevens, one of the Bells’ attorneys. “Now, why is that? Because that article that ran in the paper is a slander. It’s false. It’s absolutely malicious and it’s going to injure the Bells. I don’t know what y’all were thinking letting something like that get out in the paper.”

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Stevens was referring to an article that appeared in The Lowndes Signal along with a printed image of the $500,000 check signed by Karl Bell that was returned for insufficient funds.

It was previously reported by the Signal that the Lowndes County Commission voted 2-0 to authorize county attorney Hank Sanders “to use whatever measures necessary to collect” the $500,000. The measure carried as commissioners Dickson Farrior and Joseph Barganier voted in favor of the measure while commissioners Robert Harris, Charlie King, Jr. and Marzett Thomas abstained.

The money was to be used to make payments on a bond the county issued to purchase the Hayneville Plaza; a building planned for use by the South Central Alabama Broadband Commission.

According to the county’s plan, rent from the building and broadband revenue is intended to pay off the bond.
At the commission’s meeting on March 26, Farrior made a motion, instructing the county to make every effort to collect the money from the Bells.

“The county needs that money. They were promised that money,” Farrior said at the time. “My motion is for the county to use whatever means necessary to collect that money.”

During Monday’s meeting, Stevens threatened future litigation if a retraction was not published.

“If there’s not a retraction printed, there is going to be a lawsuit filed,” Stevens said. “Now collecting a check that’s due you is one thing. Collecting a check you knew you had no right to collect is something else. And that is an actionable lawsuit. And if something is not done about it, there’s going to be a lawsuit. And it’s going to turn over lots of rocks.”

Stevens alleged to the commission there was never a executed contract in place for the Bells’ to pay any money, saying the commission’s actions in depositing the check and attempting to collect on it were “political” in nature.

“I don’t know of anything that the commission has said in a commission meeting that would be subject to slander,” said Sanders. “Truth is always a defense.”

Sanders also confirmed that he told Commission Administrator Jackie Thomas the copy of the check published in the Signal was public record and that authorized her to release it.

“I said we have dealt with it several times in the county commission. It’s public record,” Sanders said. “We don’t have a right to withhold the check, and I advised her to give a copy of the check to the newspaper person. I did not talk to the newspaper person myself, but that is the law.”

Despite Sanders’ opinion, the commission voted unanimously to try to work with the Bells to resolve the situation and avoid potential litigation.

“We’re trying avoid litigation and having a bad eye on the county, you know, negative publicity on the county,” Commissioner Robert Harris said. “We’re trying to resolve the issue without further damaging the county’s image.”

Karl Bell told the commission he didn’t owe the county any money.

“If I owed the county any money then where’s the bill … This was not owing the county any money,” he said. “It was me agreeing to help the county out by loaning them a portion of the money to bridge a gap until this broadband project kicks in for 18 months. I brought that check, out of good faith saying that I’ll do what I say … The commissioners authorized their attorney and my attorney to draft an agreement.”

Sanders said however an agreement was reached that the Bells “would put $500,000 in escrow not lend to the county $500,000 … That $500,000 would be in escrow so that bond payments could be paid until broadband got to the point where the money was sufficient enough to be able to deal with it.”

He said the bond was approved “under condition that these agreements be implemented.”

Sanders said he told Thomas to deposit the check after asking the Bells to bring in a replacement check made out to US Bank since the funds were supposed to be held in escrow. Sanders said since six weeks had passed and the Bells did not bring a replacement check, he told Thomas to deposit the original check citing regulations on holding checks for long periods of time.

“I said go ahead and deposit the check. I did advise her to go ahead and deposit the check. But it was supposed to have been brought back the next day, and here it was weeks later and it still hadn’t been brought back. And the check was returned for insufficient funds,” Sanders said.

By Sanders taking the action he did in instructing the check to be deposited and releasing it to the media, Commission Chairman King, Jr. said Sanders superseded his authority.

“That wasn’t supposed to take place,” King said. “The attorney works for the commissioners as does the administrator and I had no knowledge of that taking place. Sanders took it upon himself to authorize Jackie to deposit that check and we had an agreement with the Bells that check would be held.”

Regardless, Sanders said the Bells’ claims of slander are unfounded.

“I just don’t know of anything that the county has done in this situation that would be slanderous on that name,” Sanders said. “And we can disagree about the facts and if they want to litigate it then we’ll just have to litigate it. But that’s a decision for the commission to make not me. If they make a decision to litigate it I will be glad to litigate it 100 percent.”