lagrangenews.com

Commission, DASH chair to sue web page administrator for libel

Matthew Strother mstrother@civitasmedia.com

May 14, 2014

Ricky Wolfe, County Commission chairman and chairman for DASH for LaGrange Inc., announced Tuesday his intent to file a libel lawsuit against the publisher of a Facebook page for claiming Wolfe was embezzling funds.


“I am announcing today that I am filing a lawsuit against a Mr. Ron McClellan, a resident of West Point, Georgia, and the owner of a web-based publication entitled Troup County Citizen,” Wolfe said a press conference, saying he was doing so as chairman for DASH and a private citizen. “On this web-based publication, Mr. McClellan on numerous occasions has accused me of embezzling funds from the various funding partners of DASH, both public and private, and that I have stolen taxpayer money and have used these proceeds for my personal gain. He further indicates that he has the evidence of these unlawful acts that have occurred and that I am responsible for these acts. This lawsuit will give Mr. McClellan the opportunity to present this evidence in a court of law and to the taxpayers of this region and state from whom he is accusing me from stealing.”


Libel is defamation in print, claims stated as fact that are untrue and willfully damaging to a person’s reputation.


Wolfe said that the suit would be filed “shortly” and in Troup County.


“I am taking this action as a private citizen and I am totally responsible for all costs associated with these legal proceedings,” Wolfe said.


McClellan was sent a letter of intent asking him to retract the allegedly libelous statements, which McClellan told the Daily News he has no intention of doing.


McClellan, responding to questions from the Daily News after the press conference, said his claims aren’t libelous.


“They are valid, carefully considered opinions and concerns I have regarding Commission Chairman Ricky Wolfe’s highly questionable, and highly secretive, actions as Commission Chairman,” McClellan said.


He gave an example of alleged “illegal ‘pre-meetings’ Wolfe has with his ‘Wolfettes,’ as I call them – Buck Davis, Morris Jones and Richard English – before the commission meetings and probably work sessions.”


McClellan started the Troup County Citizen Facebook page in 2012 because he had an issue with the now-defunct LaGrange Citizen web page. The page’s focus is on local politics.


McClellan admitted he only had “bits and pieces” of evidence supporting his claims.


“If I had more, I would have been to the State Attorney by now,” he said. “Unfortunately, the State Attorney’s office doesn’t seem real keen on going after small town public corruption. It was like pulling teeth to push them to censure (former West Point City Councilman) Donald Gilliam (for handling absentee ballots).”


He added that he doesn’t believe that a person needs an “ironclad case, ready to present to a judge and jury” to voice an opinion, suspicion or concern about what a public official is doing.


Wolfe has been chairman of DASH since he founded the non-profit 10 years ago and was elected Commission chairman in 2006. He said he’s never been an employee of DASH and the company has never issued him a W2, and he has never filed an expense report for the work he does with it.


DASH depends on public and private funding from different sources, and Wolfe said McClellan’s claims can damage its credibility with potential partners.


“We have a lot of people that we serve and we have a lot of different people that are graciously giving us funding, both public and private, so that we can continue our work,” Wolfe said. “We have accumulated and invested, again, over $60 million that we’ve invested not only in LaGrange, but in Hogansville, West Point and other communities. And when a non-profit, just like any business, loses its credibility, that’s pretty much the end of that organization. So I see this not as a personal attack on me, but it’s a personal attack on this organization. I think it’s a personal attack on our work and I think it’s a personal attack on the people we’re trying to serve.”


Wolfe said all the group’s financial information and annual budgets are public record, and it is “highly audited,” with DASH and all its affiliated organizations audited for the funds they use on projects, and those audits are available to the public as well. Investors receive monthly copies of financial reports and audits, Wolfe added.


“To my knowledge, Mr. McClellan has never requested any financial reporting from us,” he said.


DASH’s work has included building homes, rebuilding homes, low-income tax credit projects and creating various neighborhoods and apartments, Wolfe noted. He said DASH has grant administrators for each of its programs, and DASH is responsible for reporting the financial information back to the grant’s funding entity.


DASH has used Georgia Department of Community Affairs grants applied for by the county, with County Commission approval, and three cities for programs to provide home improvements to qualified home owners. Wolfe said those state grants benefit DASH through “improving the housing stock of the community,” but DASH is an official non-profit, 501(c)(3) entity and “there is no profit motive here and every penny we have end up being surplus, if you will, instead of being profit goes back into the administration of the various programs we have conducted.”


Wolfe added that the DCA sets the guidelines for those projects and audits DASH to ensure that it follows those guidelines. He noted the DCA also has awarded DASH three times with the Magnolia award, an annual award for excellence in housing.


McClellan called the lawsuit a form of intimidation.


“This town is ruled by threats and intimidation and I’ve asserted that a number of times, just in the last few months, even for years. This lawsuit being an exemplary case in point,” he said. “… I’m critical, highly critical, of Ricky Wolfe and a few others. I make no apologies for that, and express my opinions, which are just that – my opinions, my concerns. … Nothing else he’s tried has shut me up so now he is playing his trusty threats and intimidation card that usually doesn’t come out against anyone but county employees who get too uppity, or commissioners he needs to turn into ‘Wolfettes.’”


… “Do I think Ricky is corrupt? Yes. Do I think DASH for LaGrange is a scam? Yes. Can I prove it? Not yet. Possibly after the discovery process relative to this lawsuit Mr. Wolfe has brought against me, that may change,” McClellan said. “I guess we’ll see.”


McClellan added that he bore Wolfe no personal malice and had no vendetta against him.


“I bear his performance as a public official with disdain though,” he said. “This is why I have never touched on Mr. Wolfe’s personal life. I will only deal with his actions as a public official and things connected to that position. Once he is out of office, I won’t give him a second thought.”