February 19, 2019 Lawrenceville - Tommy Hunter during the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners meeting at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Tuesday, February 19, 2019. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Legal wrangling over ‘racist pig’ reprimand continues at appeals court

One day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported that a Gwinnett County commissioner had filed a new federal lawsuit demanding $5 million in compensation for his 2017 reprimand, Tommy Hunter’s attorney was at the Georgia Court of Appeals trying to keep a separate piece of litigation alive.

During brief oral arguments in front of the appeals court’s panel of judges, attorney Dwight Thomas focused on legal technicalities and what he alleged was improper “ex parte” contact that he contends interfered with the progress of his appeal in a 2017 lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Gwinnett County ethics board.

The board had recommended Hunter be reprimanded in the wake of Facebook posts in which he called Congressman John Lewis a “racist pig.”

The appeal should be heard by the Georgia Supreme Court, Thomas said. “It does not have the right smell,” Thomas said.

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Ken Jarrard, representing Gwinnett County, attempted to explain the “ex parte” contact Thomas alleged. He said it actually involved an “overzealous associate” in his office and clerks in Gwinnett and at the Georgia Supreme Court — after the appeal was erroneously sent to the Supreme Court before Gwinnett’s motion to dismiss it was properly heard.

Thomas’ appeal was filed shortly after Hunter’s reprimand was recommended, but languished for more than 200 days because Thomas had not ordered a transcript that needed to be included in the file. Several days after the county moved to dismiss the appeal because of its lack of movement, Jarrard said, Thomas filed an amended notice that made no mention of needing to include the missing transcript.

Thinking the appeal was ready to be sent to the the Georgia Supreme Court, a clerk did so. The subsequent contact between clerks was an attempt to correct the error and “claw back” the file so the motion to dismiss could be addressed. Jarrard said he notified all concerned parties as soon as he became aware of the communications.

Jarrard argued that Thomas triggered the confusing chain of events himself.

“There’s only one architect of this dismissal,” Jarrard said.

The new federal lawsuit filed last week on Hunter’s behalf argues that his reprimand violated his First Amendment rights to free speech. It asks for $5 million to compensate for Hunter’s “humiliation” and lost job opportunities.

The lawsuit names as defendants Gwinnett County and the four commissioners who voted to reprimand Hunter. Some critics have been quick to suggest that means taxpayers would foot the bill if the litigation succeeds.

Seth Weathers, Hunter’s political consultant and spokesman, balked at those concerns Tuesday. He pointed to the fact that part of Hunter’s punishment involved the county taking out an ad in the Gwinnett Daily Post — the county’s legal organ — to publish a copy of his reprimand.

“The government used tax dollars to attack a citizen and cost him employment opportunities,” Weathers said. “To say the government can’t be held responsible for its actions is preposterous.”

Commission Chair Charlotte Nash has declined to comment directly on Hunter’s lawsuits. But she told the AJC she was confident that the ethics board process played out appropriately.

“I have no reason to second guess,” Nash said. “Obviously it was not done in haste, there was an elaborate process. I think the board was very methodical with how they approached it. We’ll see how the courts deal with it.”

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