A judge ruled that a jury could find that two Moffat County government critics acted with malice when they alleged Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos broke the law.
Judge Edwin Ruland's ruling came in response to Stan and Lolly Hathhorn's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Raftopoulos in early February saying the Hathhorns have harassed, defamed and slandered her. Raftopoulos is suing the couple for $250,000.
Ruland, a judge on the Colorado Court of Appeals, decided not to dismiss any of Raftopoulos' claims.
"Viewing the proffered evidence as a whole and considering all legitimate inferences from the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court is persuaded that a jury could find actual malice in Hathhorn's communications and in endorsing those by Jeff Taylor," the judge wrote.
Taylor, a former neighbor to Raftopoulos, has been a vocal critic of Moffat County government and also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. But Raftopoulos' attorneys, Joseph Coleman and Dan Wilson of Coleman, Williams and Wilson in Grand Junction, have been unable to serve him with a court summons.
An attempt was made to serve papers at Taylor's mother's house is Reno, Nev., according to court documents. The house in Nevada is Taylor's last known residence, but his mother said Taylor no longer lived there and would not provide her son's current address. The server left a summons on Taylor's mother's porch.
After that attempt, Raftopoulos' attorneys hired Reno Carson Message Service to search for Taylor. Using Social Security number information, the service found several addresses, including an address in California where Taylor may have been a recent resident. But he was not found at the address, and he still has not been served.
When Raftopoulos originally filed the suit, Taylor told the Craig Daily Press he had divested himself of all financial assets and owned nothing that could be seized by the court.
Raftopoulos submitted to the court about two dozen excerpts from Taylor's e-mails, which she alleges are examples of defamation. The e-mails accused Raftopoulos of everything from criminal malfeasance to abusing her dog.
"You may be aware that Commissioner Raftopoulos is a dog-gone scofflaw when it comes to animal control laws in the city and county ... Raftopoulos has a wonderful little corgi pooch ... left alone by the Raftopoulos family seemingly for days and nights on end apparently without regard for his food, water or safety," Taylor wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Press. Raftopoulos submitted the e-mail to the court.
Taylor wrote the majority of the e-mails cited in the lawsuit, but Lolly Hathhorn wrote several e-mails voicing her agreement with Taylor's opinions. The e-mails were sent to financiers with whom the county does business, Gov. Bill Owens, Attorney General Ken Salazar, local and state media outlets and local elected officials, among others.
In an e-mail to the Mesa County Commissioners, Taylor wrote that the 14th Judicial District was investigating Raftopoulos. He predicted that when the investigation is complete, charges would be filed against Raftopoulos.
The investigation Taylor referred to is based on two affidavits filed by Stan Hathhorn, accusing Moffat County of violating five Colorado statutes while making payments on two series of certificates of participation used to fund the construction of the Public Safety Center. The status of the affidavit investigation could not be confirmed Tuesday. The Aspen District Attorney's Office, which was appointed to investigate, did not return phone calls.
Hathhorn alleges the county broke the law by transferring money from the General Fund to the Jail Fund to pay debt on the certificates. General Fund dollars cannot be used for debt service, according to state statute.
Commissioners submitted the allegations to their auditors, McMahon and Associates, who responded that the move between funds was a loan, not a transfer, and that certificate of participation obligations are lease payments, not debt service.
Hathhorn's allegation, the accounting service staff wrote, was unsubstantiated.
One month later, in May 2003, attorney Geoff Withers wrote a similar opinion in an e-mail to Deb Murray, who was then Moffat County's financial administrator.
Raftopoulos' filed both of these communications as part of her response to Hathhorn's motion to dismiss.
Her lawyers said this information was shared with the Hathhorns, and Raftopoulos and others repeatedly tried to explain that legal counselors thought Hathhorn's allegations were false. Hathhorn and his wife's refusal to desist making their claims of illegal activity, in light of this evidence, demonstrates a pattern of harassment and defamation, Raftopoulos' lawyers wrote in her response.
But in his motion to dismiss, Hathhorn insists that isn't the case.
"Any and all of the statements made by my wife or myself were made without malice, without reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, were set forth upon facts whereby we initiated special investigation and were made in relation to specific matters of public concern," Hathhorn wrote in the motion.
Lolly Hathhorn refused to comment on the case, and Stan Hathhorn could not be reached for comment.
Lila Herod, elections chief at the Moffat County Clerk and Recorder Office, confirmed that Stan Hathhorn, a registered independent, has obtained a petition to run for county commissioner this fall.
He will need to collect and submit 78 signatures by July 2 if he wants to be on November's general election ballot.
Hathhorn would be running for the seat vacated by Raftopoulos, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org