LaGRANGE — Jury selection is set to begin today in the final phase of a libel lawsuit brought by a former county commissioner against a local blogger.
Richard C. Wolfe, chairman of the Troup County Board of Commissioners from 2007 to 2014, is suing Internet blogger Ronald J. McClellan, 55, of West Point.
Wolfe contends McClellan unlawfully accused him of fraud, embezzlement and taking public money for private use. Wolfe denies McClellan’s claims.
McClellan made the in-question statements on his blog and in comments on the LaGrange Daily News’ website, and accused Wolfe of funneling tax dollars into his own pockets, diverting charity funds to Swiss bank accounts and accepting “kickbacks and converting illegal gains for his own use,” according to court records.
Wolfe has sworn under oath McClellan’s accusations are false. McClellan — who has received 1,700 pages of Wolfe’s personal financial records during the case’s discovery phase — has never produced any evidence of wrongdoing by Wolfe, court records show.
Superior Court Judge Jack Kirby ruled in September that McClellan made the accusations “without one scintilla of evidence,” and with “reckless disregard of whether such statements were false or not,” according to Kirby’s Sept. 9 summary judgment.
Kirby made his summary judgment after reviewing evidence submitted by both McClellan, who represents himself, and Wolfe’s attorney, Carrollton-based lawyer Thomas E. Greer.
Because Kirby ruled in September that McClellan committed libel, a jury gathered this week need only determine monetary damages, if any. Jurors will also deliberate on whether McClellan made the statements with “actual malice,” as prescribed by the law.
During pretrial motions Monday, Wolfe’s attorney, Greer, asked Kirby to prohibit McClellan from making statements that Kirby has shown favoritism toward Wolfe during the case, or that “the judge (Kirby) in this case is corrupt.”
McClellan, in online posts as recent as Jan. 21, has called for Kirby to “step down,” and accused him of conducting a “sham trial and denying the defendant (McClellan) a jury trial for a judges [sic] top campaign donor and his buddy.”
Kirby denied Greer’s motion, and said he would not interfere with McClellan’s right to free speech during the trial. He did caution, however, that he would hold McClellan in contempt of court if McClellan acted with disrespect toward the court.
After jury selection, which is expected to be completed by mid-morning today, jurors will hear the facts of the case as presented by both the plaintiff and defendant.
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Tyler H. Jones is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.