Former GOP chair wins lawsuit against detractors
Is former Berkeley County Republican Party Chairman Bill Wilcox a public figure?
The question is at the heart of a slander and libel lawsuit lodged by Wilcox against local political activists Richard Corbin and Linda Riney.
On Monday, March 11, in a courtroom in Moncks Corner, a jury ruled that Corbin and Riney made false statements about Wilcox, and ordered the defendants to pay a combined $5,000.
Corbin said that an appeal may be filed; he and Riney argued that their criticism of Wilcox was protected due to the fact that Wilcox was a public figure.
Corbin added that he considered the relatively small fine – Wilcox had pursued a larger settlement – a victory in itself. “We feel like it was a victory for us,” he said. “We couldn’t afford to hire an attorney to defend us, to come out with just a $5,000 bill is a win. Whoever paid for Wilcox’s defense probably paid a lot more than that.”
Wilcox’s attorney Gregg Meyers, meanwhile, called the verdict a win for his client.
“According to the jury, Richard Corbin and Linda Riney are official liars,” Meyers said. “The jury found they lied about Mr. Wilcox when they accused him of stealing money from the Berkeley County Republican Party.”
The verdict form stated that Riney pay $2,000 and Corbin pay $3,000 for injury compensation to Wilcox as a result of the defendants’ conduct. No punitive damages were awarded.
Court documents reveal that in 2007 Riney requested a State Law Enforcement Division investigation of Wilcox claiming financial mismanagement of BCRP funds.
Both Riney and Corbin made statements regarding Wilcox, questioning the role he played when $1,800 in BCGOP funds and filing fees could not be accounted for. The SLED investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing; the county Republican Party would eventually be fined $500 by the state ethics commission for not filing quarterly statements from 2003 to 2007.
“When the SLED investigation came back and found Bill Wilcox had committed no wrongdoing at that point they should have left well enough alone,” Meyer said. “They didn’t.”
According to Meyers, Riney and Corbin continued to circulate emails accusing Wilcox of stealing BCRP money.
Corbin and Riney claim that Wilcox was a public figure according to a South Carolina Statute (Title 8 – Public Officers and Employees, Chapter 1, General Provisions Section 8-1-10) that says: “The term public officers shall be construed to mean all officers of the State that have heretofore been commissioned and trustees of various colleges of the State, members of various State boards and other persons whose duties are defined by law.”
In 2012 Ninth Circuit Court Judge Roger Young ruled that Wilcox was a private figure when the statements were made. Wilcox did not seek reelection when his term ended in 2007.
Corbin and Riney represented themselves during the trial, and Corbin said their legal inexperience hindered the introduction of evidence.
“The legal system is made by lawyers for lawyers and our inexperience kept us from presenting a lot of the evidence we had because we didn’t know how,” he said.