Commissioner files civil suit for slander

Marianna Raftopoulos accuses county critics of harassment, defamation

Marianna Raftopoulos, the chairwoman of the Moffat County Board of Commissioners, filed a lawsuit last week against two vocal critics, accusing them of harassment, slander and defamation.

Raftopoulos is seeking damages in excess of $250,000 for the harm her lawyers say has been done to her reputation, according to court documents filed Feb. 3.

The defendants in the lawsuit, Moffat County businessman Stan Hathhorn and California resident Jeff Taylor, seemed amused by the lawsuit Monday. Hathhorn had just been served with papers Monday afternoon when he offered a brief statement.

"I think it's kind of humorous," he said. "I think it certainly looks like a jab at free speech, but I'm not too worried about it. All of the facts I've reported come from public records. They (the commissioners) created them and I just reported them. Flattering or not, they did it."

Raftopoulos said Tuesday she'll have a tougher time proving damages than a private citizen would because she's a public figure.

"Yes, there is a higher threshold, but there is a threshold and we feel they've crossed," she said. "They have an American right to make a charge or say 'this isn't right,' but they don't have a right to continue to badger and harass."

Raftopoulos' lawyer Dan E. Wilson of Grand Junction said he's confident Raftopoulos has a good case. Raftopoulos and her legal team will have to prove the defendants had a reckless disregard for the truth or actual knowledge that they were making untruthful statements, he said.

"Any citizens can complain about their governments, but once they make a complaint that's reviewed by the appropriate authorities and they determine there's nothing to that, you can't keep making the same allegations over and over based on the same set of facts. That's over the bar."

Taylor, who was Raftopoulos' neighbor for a brief period in the late 1990s, has waged an informational campaign scrutinizing the commission's every move. From his home in Palm Desert, Calif., Taylor has dispatched e-mails to citizens, county employees, state officials and the media questioning the commission's fiscal responsibility.

"To me, this is a very bullyish attempt to stop political speech," Taylor said. "This is frivolous and I hope that local people will see if for what it is -- that Mrs. Raftopoulos is trying to sue me into silence."

Taylor added that he's divested himself of all financial assets and owns nothing that could be seized by the court -- even if a judgment were rendered against him.

"I'm judgment proof," he said. "I have no reason to fight it. She'll never get a red cent from me."

But Taylor added that he's confident he's done nothing wrong in pointing out the financial workings of the commission. Although he doesn't live here or pay taxes, Taylor says Moffat County residents deserve to know what their elected officials are up to.

"I don't make decisions individually," Raftopoulos said. "These decisions are made by a board in a public meeting after full public discussion and input. I've been singled out and I'd like to know why."

In the lawsuit's general allegations -- a summary of the wrongdoing Raftopoulos alleges as the basis for damages -- Taylor is accused of communicating "false and defamatory statements to third parties concerning the plaintiff" and publishing "harassing, false and defamatory statements to the office of Gov. Bill Owens, all members of the Moffat County Board of Commissioners, the Moffat County attorney and others resulting in injury and damage to the plaintiff, particularly injury to her standing and reputation as an elected official."

The allegations implicate Hathhorn and his wife, Lolly Hathhorn, in a " civil conspiracy" to continue harassing Raftopoulos and the other commissioners after the board blocked Taylor's e-mail missives from the county's computer network server.

By publishing the alleged defamatory statements, the defendants have harmed Raftopoulos' reputation and "discredited" her decisions and accomplishments as a commissioner and interfered with her ability to enter into future business and professional agreements with others, the suit alleges.

"By way of example, when referring to the plaintiff in numerous e-mails and published communications to third parties, the defendants have alleged that the plaintiff has violated state laws or that the plaintiff is guilty of malfeasance," the lawsuit states. "Such statements are false."

Last May, Hathhorn filed two affidavits alleging malfeasance on the part of Raftopoulos, former Moffat County Administrative Services Director Debra Murray and other unnamed county officials. The affidavits are under review with the Aspen District Attorney's office.

Last week Raftopoulos said the DA's investigation is misleading because prosecutors are forced to look into any and all allegations of malfeasance, even unsubstantiated claims.

Taylor admitted it's his personal goal to drive Raftopoulos and Hampton from office because he says he's been ridiculed and called names for doing a "self-appointed job."

"That job is exposing the truth about the way taxpayer dollars have been spent and history has shown much of what I said and predicted to be true and worse. I will not quit until such time as Commissioner Hampton and Commissioner Raftopoulos are out of office, because they attempted to discredit my words every chance they got without regard to the truth. If you want to say that's personal, OK, say it."

Taylor said that he has been the subject of two criminal investigation that uncovered no evidence of harassment. Moffat County Sheriff Buddy Grinstead confirmed Tuesday that his office looked into a "perjury allegation" in 2000 stemming from restraining orders Taylor and Hampton had filed against each other, and later conducted a "threat assessment" when the commission complained about Taylor's Web site, www.moffatcounty.com.

"We talked to the DA about potential harassment," Grinstead said. "At that time, he advised us that we, elected officials, by the positions we hold are subjecting ourselves to comment, good and bad, and that someone voicing an opinion does not constitute harassment."

In December 2003, the commission directed Moffat County Attorney Kathleen Taylor to look into taking legal action against Jeff Taylor for sending emails to the financial group that was considering refinancing a loan for the Public Safety Center. The refinancing option the county had hoped for was declined.

Commissioner Les Hampton said Tuesday that "no decision has been made" whether to proceed with a lawsuit.

"We're kind of keeping our ear to the ground, our eyes on the horizon and our options open," he said.

Hathhorn said he would withhold further comments until he's had a chance to consult with his lawyer. Later, in an e-mail, he said the lawsuit would not detract him from filing a petition for a recall of Raftopoulos and Hampton.

Andy Smith can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 204 or by e-mail at asmith@craigdailypress.com.

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