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Supreme Court turns down appeal on Jones challenge

POSTED: July 14, 2014 7:12 p.m.
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2nd District Commissioner Vera Jones

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The challenge to an Effingham County commissioner’s candidacy appears to be over.

The state Supreme Court unanimously declined to hear Andrew Brantley’s appeal of an Effingham County Superior Court decision. Judge Gates Peed had affirmed the county board of elections’ decision to dismiss Brantley’s challenge to 2nd District Commissioner Vera Jones’ candidacy.

The justices issued their decision Friday. The case, had the justices agreed it could go forward, was scheduled for an October hearing date.

Attorney Rick Rafter, who filed the appeal on Brantley’s behalf, said he will not ask the state high court to reconsider its decision.

Rafter filed his application for appeal June 18, and challengers stated that Jones is the holder of public money due to the county and that Judge Peed erred in finding there was no evidence to support the claim money was being held unlawfully. They also say the judge erred in finding the challenger’s legal rights to due process were not violated when the motion to dismiss was granted.

“This was a false claim intended to mislead the voters of Effingham County,” said Jones’ attorney Steven Scheer of the challenge. “It was an attempt to steal an election, rather than win an election. The claims were totally false and meritless.”

The original challenge, filed in March, contends that Jones is the holder of public funds, the result of an overpayment for work by her company to put in water and sewer lines for a subdivision. Jones countered that the company she owns with her husband Dennis, DM Jones Construction, was due the money from the county, which failed to deliver on promised infrastructure. That necessitated her company performing the work, she and her attorneys charged.

The appeal alleged that the $739,844.86 issued to DM Jones Construction from the county finance department was due to fraud and that the county made a demand for a portion of the money paid in error to be returned. She has refused to do so. The appeal states Jones’ company was to be paid back through impact fees collected, which totaled $147,500.

“The claims against Vera and Dennis Jones were completely unfounded,” Scheer said. “Judge (Gates) Peed and the state Supreme Court established that and affirmed what the county attorney and the independent counsel said all along.”

Jones “went above and beyond” by establishing money was not being unlawfully held, her attorneys said, and added the “plan and simple answer is no” as to whether she is in fact the holder of public funds. They also counter that being a holder of public funds is a designation reserved for someone acting in an official capacity and collecting money on behalf of a governmental entity.

“Applicant’s claim Jones is a ‘holder’ of public funds is completely devoid of any justifiable basis either in fact or law,” Jones’ legal team continued. “Above all else, DM Jones received payment from Effingham County as a corporate debt, Candidate Jones received nothing individually. … Candidate Jones did not collect the money at issue in an official capacity on behalf of Effingham County. In fact, she individually never received nor possessed a dime of the money at issue.”

Brantley charged that Jones and her company were not due the overpayment, that she sent “fraudulent writings” to the county claiming she was owed the full contract price and she admitted in her own writings she was not due the full amount.
Jones’ attorneys also noted that Effingham County’s failure to live up to two separate water and sewer agreements forced DM Jones Construction to put in the lines at its own cost.

“The actual cost to DM Jones far exceeded the money received, and Effingham County values the infrastructure at over 1.5 million dollars,” the attorneys said in their filings.

“There is no question they have done nothing wrong, and they are still owed money by the county,” Scheer said.

Though county officials asked Jones to return the check, no formal vote was taken, the defense has pointed out.

The appeal stated Jones and her attorneys filed an untimely motion to dismiss, less than 24 hours before the elections board held its hearing, and it also did not address Brantley’s issues. They also charge that they were allowed to submit written evidence only, but the elections board did not review the evidence and neither were they allowed to call witnesses present at the hearing.

By not requiring Jones to prove her qualifications or allowing them to show she was not qualified, the elections board failed to address the violation of Brantley’s rights, their filing states. The appeal also argues that the burden is on a candidate to “affirmatively establish his eligibility of office” after they have filed their qualification affidavit.

Jones won re-election to her post, defeating challenge and former county commission chairman Dusty Zeigler 573-469. Judge Peed issued his ruling the next day that the elections board’s vote to dismiss Brantley’s challenge will stand.

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