A lawsuit alleging that the LaPorte County auditor unlawfully maligned the character and reputation of the attorney for the LaPorte County Board of Commissioners can proceed to trial, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.
According to court records, Republican Auditor Timothy Stabosz repeatedly emailed and published to county officials, news outlets and the public a variety of claims in early 2021 that Shaw Friedman committed illegal or unethical acts in the hope of preventing the commissioners from hiring Friedman as their legal counsel.
Among other assertions, Stabosz said Friedman used his county position to generate additional fees for his law firm and to support Democratic political allies, turned the county commissioners into his puppets and ran a "classic system" of political patronage by directly influencing the actions of county department leaders.
According to court records, Stabosz said those actions created "a corrosive political underworld," which he described as "the seedy underbelly of LaPorte County politics," that "saps the moral resolve of good people in county government, undermines faith and confidence and breeds cynicism" by "fostering a culture of terror, a culture of coercion, a culture of intimidation and a culture of rewards and punishments that completely undermines the moral dignity of LaPorte County, and its officials."
Friedman explicitly denied Stabosz's allegations in an email to the county commissioners and other county officials, and demanded that Stabosz retract his comments and apologize.
Instead, according to court records and other documents, Stabosz doubled down, accusing Friedman in a follow-up email of committing an act of "moral terror against another human being," as well as reiterating in another email his allegation that Friedman uses LaPorte County for his personal gain, "undermining its financial integrity and moral dignity."
"I felt it was necessary to weigh in, and, on the eve of the commission meeting this past Wednesday, (send) an email to both the commission and county council indicating my view on Mr. Friedman’s myriad conflicts of interest, how he recruits and trains candidates that are then beholden to hire him as county attorney, and how he basically runs the county through these operatives/henchmen to feather his own nest," Stabosz said in the email.
Friedman subsequently sent two letters through his attorney to Stabosz identifying his remarks as defamatory and again demanding a retraction and apology.
In response, Stabosz released a statement suggesting that Friedman "needs to find his manhood" and indicating that Stabosz believed his statements were protected speech, given Friedman's position as a public figure.
That prompted Friedman to file a defamation lawsuit against Stabosz. The suit later was amended because Stabosz made additional allegedly defamatory statements, records show.
The auditor responded to the suit by claiming that his statements were protected political speech, and Stabosz accused Friedman of attempting to silence him.
The trial court ultimately determined that Stabosz's remarks were made in furtherance of his right to free speech and in connection with a public issue.
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But it also said Stabosz did not show that his statements had a reasonable basis in law and fact, as required by Indiana statutes, and therefore the court could not grant Stabosz's request to dismiss Friedman's defamation suit.
"Stabosz has not identified any facts from which he concluded that Friedman is corrupt, has violated professional obligations and criminal statutes regarding conflicts of interest, collected referral fees in violation of professional obligations, or in any other way engaged in unethical conduct," LaPorte Circuit Special Judge Stephen Bowers said.
The appellate court agreed. It said that if Stabosz had any evidence of illegal or unethical behavior by Friedman, he should have reported the alleged wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities.
"The record does not reflect that Stabosz has ever done so," Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Cale Bradford wrote.
As a result, Bradford said, it remains a matter for a jury to decide whether Stabosz's remarks toward Friedman were defamatory.
In response to the appellate ruling, Stabosz said in a seven-paragraph statement that he's inclined to ask the Indiana Supreme Court to consider overturning the decision and order Friedman's defamation lawsuit against him dismissed.
"I look forward to seeing this case through to the end, and I intend to do just that — for the sake of the innumerable victims, including county commissioners and county councilmen, among others, that Friedman has sought to shake down, extort, and place his yoke upon," Stabosz wrote.
Meanwhile, Friedman's response totaled two sentences: "We don’t do touchdown dances. The opinion of the Court of Appeals speaks for itself."
Should the Supreme Court decline to hear Stabosz's appeal, or also decide in Friedman's favor, a trial is likely to be scheduled next year in LaPorte County.