CATLETTSBURG A former restaurant owner falsely accused Ashland’s economic development director and a city police sergeant of wrongdoing and must pay damages, a jury found Tuesday.
The verdict came after three hours of deliberations in a two-day defamation trial stemming from a lawsuit filed by economic development director Chris Pullem and city police Sgt. Brian Clark against Robert Batchelor. Batchelor previously owned the now-closed Ambassador restaurant and catering business in the former American Electric Power building.
The jury found Batchelor falsely accused Pullem of illegally transporting and selling alcohol at fundraising events without paying taxes on the sales. The jury also determined an allegation that Pullem, on behalf of the city, bought the former Nobil building on Winchester Avenue and then sold it at a loss after expensive renovations was false. And, they determined that Batchelor made another false allegation that Pullem illegally sent grant money to out of town associates at three times the rate of local contractors.
The jury, meanwhile, also found Batchelor falsely accused Clark of illegally transporting and selling alcohol at fundraising events without paying taxes and of using public resources to search Batchelor’s arrest record in order to discredit Batchelor.
Batchelor defamed Pullem and Clark because he knew the accusations were false or made them in reckless disregard of whether they were true or false, the jury found.
“I’m obviously pleased with the verdict. It sends a message you can’t just say whatever you want about people and get away with it,” Pullem said.
“It just felt good. I appreciate that 12 people took the time to listen to us and to understand everything we’ve gone through over the past couple of years,” Clark said.
The verdict came after a day and a half of testimony during which Clark and Pullem took the stand and said statements Batchelor made on Facebook damaged their professional standing. Clark’s wife Amanda, a city commissioner, also testified.
Batchelor acted as his own attorney and characterized his Facebook posts as critical of government and thus a free-speech issue.
He said he accused Brian Clark and Pullem not of committing felonies but of collusion to commit the illegal acts but did not make the difference clear.
The legal struggle between Batchelor and the two officials stemmed from Batchelor’s unsuccessful attempt to land a catering contract for the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center’s Dancing With Our Stars fundraiser in 2017.
Batchelor’s bid was rejected because he did not have a catering license, which is required for events serving alcohol.
After that he posted a more than 4,000 word message on Facebook making the accusations. The post went viral and Pullem and Clark say the allegations continue to come up in conversation and on social media.
Batchelor insisted to the end he was telling the truth. “Everything that was written was true,” he said under cross-examination.
The jury awarded damages of $75,000 to Pullem and $750 to Clark.
Pullem hopes the verdict will repair damage to his professional standing. “People are going to say what they’re going to say, but I hope it does. The accusations we’ve battled for years now have damaged my reputation. I hope some folks will read today’s verdict and rethink their position on all of this.”
The city initially agreed to pay up to $5,000 for legal fees to explore the possible filing of a lawsuit.
Pullem and Clark paid their own way after that, Pullem said.
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