Attorneys for an Effingham County commissioner have filed their response to an appeal of the board of elections’ and a Superior Court judge’s decision denying a challenge to her qualifications.
Rick Rafter, representing Andrew Brantley, who brought the challenge to Commissioner Vera Jones’ re-election in March, filed his appeal with the state high court June 18. Steven Scheer, Jones’ counsel, filed their response June 27, asking the justices to deny the application for discretionary appeal.
Jones’ attorneys said Brantley’s filing does not meet any applicable criteria for granting an appeal and he has not shown reversible error or the need to set precedent.
“The actions by the Effingham County Board of Elections and Effingham County Superior Court were appropriate and just,” Jones’ attorneys wrote in their response. “Candidate Vera Jones is without a doubt in fact or law not the holder of public funds as contended,” they continued. They also claim Brantley’s charge that the burden of proof lies with Jones is incorrect, and that her motion to dismiss was appropriate and accepted by the elections board.
In the appeal, Brantley charges that Jones and her attorneys filed an untimely motion to dismiss with the county board of elections. He has claimed that Jones has held several hundred thousand dollars of county money and has not repaid it, even after being asked to do so.
Jones’ counsel said Brantley’s application to the state Supreme Court “omits numerous and critical relevant facts.”
At the core of Brantley’s initial challenge and his appeal is a $739,844.86 check issued to DM Jones Construction, Inc. The challenge is that Jones is the holder of public money, which was paid to her erroneously, and therefore is not qualified to run for re-election. The check was reimbursement for water and sewer lines, and Jones and her attorneys counter that their evidence clearly establishes the money was paid to the company and not Jones herself.
“The work served to benefit the citizens and residents of Effingham County,” their response stated. “It is also undisputed fact Effingham County paid DM Jones, a duly existing corporate entity, and not Vera Jones individually. Effingham County owed DM Jones the money for work performed by DM Jones to the benefit of Effingham County. In fact,” the response added, “DM Jones expended money well in excess of the money received from Effingham County to construct the subject infrastructure.”
Jones’ attorneys also accused Brantley of a political “dirty trick,” with “Pay It Back, Vera” signs posted around the community.
The board of elections, in a 3-1 vote, granted Jones’ motion to dismiss the challenge in an April 14 hearing, and Judge Gates Peed upheld the decision on Brantley’s appeal to the Superior Court.
In his order, filed May 22, Judge Peed wrote that other evidence in the record indicates “the money was properly paid.”
Judge Peed said a letter from Chatham County county attorney Jon Hart, brought in as special counsel by the Effingham commissioners, noted that DM Jones Construction had been paid approximately 96 percent of the costs incurred under a water-sewer agreement with the county. That, the judge wrote, appeared to fall into line with a March 2014 letter from Eric Gotwalt, the Effingham county attorney, “who indicated that there was no question as to the amount owed, only the timing of the payment.”
Judge Peed also said “nothing has been shown which supports the petitioner’s claim that any public funds are being unlawfully held by the candidate.”
The judge also said both sides had the opportunity to present evidence and be heard and that Brantley’s rights were not violated, since the board was within its discretion to consider and grant the motion to dismiss, “particularly in light of there being no evidence to support Petitioner’s claim that any money was being unlawfully held.”
Jones “went above and beyond” by establishing money was not being unlawfully held, her attorneys said, and added the “plain 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.”
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.
Though county officials asked Jones to return the check, no formal vote was taken, the defense has pointed out. The challenge states Jones’ company was to be repaid through impact fees collected, which totaled about $147,500, resulting in Jones’ company being overpaid nearly $590,000. Jones is listed as a 50 percent owner of the company.
In their response, Jones’ attorneys state the burden of proof on her qualifications does not rest with the candidate, since Judge Peed explained the candidate doesn’t have the burden to defend “an illegitimate challenge.”
“Apparently Applicant believes Candidate Jones must establish her qualifications in the forum and format most desirable to Applicant,” they wrote. They also said the applicant did not establish that the motion to dismiss was done in an “untimely” manner.
The case is on the state Supreme Court’s calendar for October.