Robert Batchelor

 Robert Batchelor appears in Boyd County Circuit Court on Monday. Batchelor is being sued by two city employees who allege he defamed them in social media posts. Photo by Mike James.

CATLETTSBURG More than two years after a series of explosive Facebook posts appeared accusing them of improprieties, Ashland’s economic development director and a city police sergeant testified in court Monday in a defamation suit they filed against a local restaurant owner who made the online accusations.

Chris Pullem and Ashland police Sgt. Brian Clark said the accusations by former restaurant owner Robert Batchelor damaged their professional reputations, sundered business relationships and brought them under a continuing cloud of suspicion.

Also testifying on the first day of the civil trial was Clark’s wife Amanda, a city commissioner who also was the subject of Facebook criticism from Batchelor.

Batchelor, acting as his own attorney, repeatedly insisted on social media that Pullem and Clark colluded to illegally supply alcohol to the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center’s Dancing With Our Stars fundraiser in 2017.

He also repeated accusations in the social media postings and in court Monday that Pullem had improperly steered the city’s purchase, renovation and sale — at a steep loss — of the former Nobil Shoe building on Winchester Avenue, and that Brian Clark had used restricted police databases to dredge up Batchelor’s criminal record.

Chris Pullem and Brian Clark subsequently sued Batchelor, saying the allegations not only were false but defamatory and harmful. The origins of the lawsuit date to Batchelor’s nearly 4,000 word post on Batchelor’s Facebook page criticizing the Highlands for allegedly shutting him out of a catering contract for the fundraiser. In the post Batchelor accuses Pullem and Brian Clark of “criminal activities, corruption, dishonesty and/or incompetence.”

The post was shared virally and Pullem, Brian Clark and Amanda Clark all testified Monday that the accusations have continue to linger despite the fact that all of the allegations, they said, are patently false.

Pullem said companies inquiring about Ashland as well as local business contacts stopped calling him after the posts went viral. “Relationships were fractured, broken for good,” he said.

The aftershock extended to his personal life and his children, he said. “When you start accusing folks of criminal activity, of crimes against the federal government, when your kids, start to hear it ... “ Pullem said, near tears.

Pullem was a candidate for city manager and the commission declined to consider him because of the allegations, Amanda Clark testified. She said his reputation remains “tainted.”

The accusations against Brian Clark resulted in an internal investigation and continuing questions from people outside the police department, Brian Clark testified.

Kentucky State Police conducted the investigation that concluded neither Brian Clark nor anyone else had improperly accessed the NCIC and FBI databases to unearth Batchelor’s criminal record, Ashland Police Chief Todd Kelley testified.

The accusations and the investigation were significant because improper use of the records could result in sanctions against the department, including withdrawal of use of the databases, and charges against the offender, Kelley testified.

Brian Clark’s professional reputation also was stained, Amanda Clark testified. “That people who never met him think he’s a dirty cop, those of us in the world of law enforcement cannot think of a worse insult ... people think he’s a criminal and they think he’s dirty,” she said.

The trial continues today in Boyd Circuit Court.

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Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.