By MIKE WILLIAMS
General District Court Judge Erin DeHart on Wednesday ruled in favor of incumbent Ingles District School Board member Penny Golden in a civil suit brought by her challenger, Gina Paine.
In a hearing that lasted a little over an hour, DeHart agreed with Golden’s attorney Gregory Kallen that a Facebook Messenger message Golden had sent to a friend in the Pulaski County Republican Party was not done with malice and did not constitute a reckless disregard for the truth.
Kallen argued that Paine, being a candidate for local office, is viewed by the law as a public figure and therefore must prove actual malice to collect damages.
He argued that Golden’s actions did not cause damage to Paine in that she still received the Republican Party’s endorsement, despite the message she sent arriving just before a meeting of the party to consider school board endorsements.
The ruling came after Paine’s attorney, Chris Tuck, argued that Golden’s message to Mickey Weikle was meant to torpedo Paine’s school board campaign.
In Golden’s message, she said “Ms. Paine is a convicted felon with an extensive criminal history.”
Tuck questioned Golden on what she was basing that statement on in her message, and Golden said a document that had been delivered to her house.
Tuck asked who had delivered the document, and Golden replied, “Brenda Blackburn.”
Tuck asked Golden if she considered Blackburn to be a reliable souce, and she answered, “Yes, as far as I know.”
Tuck had Golden review the eight pages of the document and asked if the word felony could be found on either page. Eight times Golden replied “no.”
Kallen, however, argued during cross-examination that the words “controlled substance” and “sentencing” did appear, and was the basis for Golden’s use of the words “convicted felon.”
Tuck also questioned Golden over Paine’s middle name – the document listed it as “Hubbard.” Paine’s middle name is Huffard.
Subsequent questioning found that Paine’s physical description did not match information on the document. The document listed residences for Paine that were incorrect, and even listed two traffic offenses that allegedly occurred on the same day – January 1, 2002 – in both West Virginia and California.
Kallen asked Golden what was her reason for sending the message to Weikle. Golden responded she was seeking “feedback,” and had only sent the message to Weikle.
Weikle said after she received the message from Golden, she contacted Pulaski County Board of Supervisors Chairman Laura Walters – also a Republican.
During her turn on the witness stand, Paine said she first heard of Golden’s message on Aug. 8 during a phone call from Walters.
Paine said the news was “very upsetting.” She said her main concern was for her son – a rising senior at Pulaski County High School at the time. School was about to start and she feared him being confronted over it at school.
Paine said the accusations caused her to lose weight with worry, distracted her from her responsibilities as her mother’s primary caregiver and caused her to lose sleep.
Paine acknowledged having one DUI conviction, on Jan. 1, 2002 in West Virginia, but had stopped drinking in 2011, and had actually worked to help others in the area do the same – a fact Judge DeHart thanked her for during her summation.
Paine noted she had worked for Pulaski County Public Schools from 2014 to 2020 as a substitute teacher and had undergone a background check at that time.
“It’s my understanding a convicted felon loses their voting rights,” Paine stated.
Golden was actually serving on the school board for about three months while Paine worked as a sub.
Paine said rumors and accusations about her had been surfacing all summer and even included encrypted emails accusing her of things such as being a convicted felon, prostitution and nearly having her children taken away.
In his closing argument, Kallen said Paine had not shown “clear and convincing” evidence of malice or reckless disregard for the truth. That her communication was to one person and that had not cost her the GOP endorsement.
Tuck disagreed and noted that, “These type actions are bad and keep good people from running for public office.”
Tuck noted that Golden could have apologized but chose not to.
“She also could have through her attorney, but didn’t,” he added.
Paine had brought the suit against Golden on Aug. 22 seeking $12,500 in compensatory damages and $12,500 in punitive damages.