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Commission hires co-counsel for lawsuit against Bells and others over Hayneville Plaza purchase

By Fred Guarino

The Lowndes Signal

In meeting that covered a wide gamut of topics from road projects to holidays, the Lowndes County Commission, voted Monday, Dec. 10, over the objection of Commissioners Robert Harris and Joshua Simmons, to hire Hayneville attorney Jerry Thornton to serve as co-counsel with Highland Home attorney Arlene Richardson in an ongoing lawsuit by the commission over the original purchase of the Hayneville Plaza building in Hayneville.

The lawsuit is set to go to trial in Lowndes County Circuit Court on Monday, Jan. 7 with the selection of a jury.

While approval of Thornton as co-counsel was made without pending the legal review of County Commission Attorney Hank Sanders of Selma as a condition, Commission Chairman Carnell McAlpine asked Sanders to look into the matter.

Voting in favor of the hire were McAlpine and Commissioners Dickson Farrior and Joseph Barganier.

Harris raised several questions regarding the hiring of Thornton that he requested be made part of the minutes of the Dec. 10 meeting. They include:

  1. She (Richardson) was prepared to do it (go to court with the lawsuit) by herself six months ago, so why does she need a co-counsel now?
  2. The attorney she is recommending (Thornton) sued the county.
  3. The attorney she is recommending (Thornton) participated in the sale of the building that the lawsuit is about. So, Harris said that is a conflict of interest.
  4. The attorney she is recommending (Thornton) owns a building that is rented, leased or bought by the same person (Bells) that the county commission is suing.
  5. Our attorney (Sanders) stepped away because of a conflict of interest.

Sanders said, “The question is does he (Thornton) have a conflict? I don’t know what he did.” But Sanders said he did not think there was a conflict unless Thornton “participated in matters that are in dispute.”

Farrior asked, “Commissioner Harris, what problem do you have with this commission protecting the interest of the county?” He said, “We’re trying to right a wrong here. And if she (Richardson) needs help to do this, we need to support her in every way, and you need to support it.”

Harris replied, “We don’t take an oath to use county funds for personal gains. And you’re using county funds to sue somebody for your personal issues with them.”

Harris said he had no knowledge of meetings between other commissioners and the attorney (Richardson) regarding the lawsuit. And called that was unfair to him.

In June of 2011, the commission voted to float a $3.5 million bond to purchase the Hayneville Plaza Building, which was appraised at $3.2 million, for use by the South Central Alabama Broadband Commission (SCABC) in connection with a federal grant and private investors funded broadband project.
The difference between the bond amount and the cost of the building included a deposit into the reserve fund, capitalized interest, a premium for municipal bond insurance, underwriter’s discount, other expenses and insurance and additional proceeds.
In 2012, a $59 million grant to Trillion Communications from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the $86 million SCABC project in eight Alabama counties was terminated.
A lawsuit filed in 2013 by the commission against Karl Bell, Hayneville Plaza LLC and the South Central Alabama Broadband District (SCABC) was amended to include three additional defendants.
According to court documents, the lawsuit was amended to include Charlie King Jr., Helenor Bell and Robert Woods as defendants.
Richardson said at the time, “The statue that we are suing under now — because we amended the complaint under a different statue that — allows you to not only sue the public officer who (allegedly) caused funds to be dispersed in the manner that they were here, but it also allows you to follow the money that was dispersed to get that money back.”

The commission recently sold the building to Bell Ventures for $125,000. It was later demolished and the site is now the location of the new Ace Hardware Store in Hayneville owned by Joe Bell Jr. and Travis Bell.