|October 12, 2000|
Forsyth County Sheriff Denny Hendrix has been hit with a $20 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court by two county businessmen who claim they were smeared in several campaign brochures and posters distributed by the sheriff's reelection campaign prior to the Aug. 8 runoff election.
The lawsuit claims Hendrix turned Forsyth County into a "fascist state" during his administration and targeted political opponents using a "Strike Force" comprised of his top officers.
Hendrix was embroiled in a campaign duel with challenger Ted Paxton, who eventually garnered almost 70 percent of the vote to yank the seat from the incumbent sheriff in the runoff.
The lawsuit was filed Sept. 28 in federal court in Atlanta and names Hendrix, his wife and campaign chairperson-treasurer, Allyson, several sheriff's officers and two consulting firms— including former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed's Century Strategies— as defendants.
Plaintiffs Danny M. Bennett, his wife, Tammy R. Bennett, and Danny L. Reid, claim Sheriff Hendrix has waged an ongoing vendetta against them stemming from their support of a proposal to form a county police force in 1998.
The county police force referendum, which later failed, would have stripped the sheriff's office of most its law enforcement powers.
Sheriff Hendrix could not be reached for comment for this article.
The lawsuit alleges Bennett and Reid were subject to false and defamatory campaign literature distributed by the Hendrix campaign. According to court documents, photos of the two men appeared next to captions entitled, "The Ted Paxton Chain Gang." Another piece featured pictures of Reid and Bennett near captions saying, "vote to keep Forsyth safe from criminals and convicted felons."
Reid, owner of a grading company, and Bennett, an engineer, were arrested in 1995 for grading without a proper permit. It was later determined Reid and Bennett had obtained all necessary permits, according to court records.
Reid and Bennett filed civil court action against Forsyth County, which resulted in the county acknowledging the pair "had not violated the law and that their arrest was improper," according to court records.
"Hendrix's campaign knew that the posters carrying Reid's and Bennett's photographs were false and defamatory, yet deliberately and maliciously caused the posters to be widely disseminated throughout Forsyth County," the lawsuit alleges.
Gwinnett County attorney Timothy J. Hamil, who represented Reid and Bennett in their civil action against the county, fired off a letter to Hendrix Aug. 9 regarding the campaign posters and brochures.
Hamil, who is now a state court judge in Gwinnett, wrote: "Sheriff, your recent campaign literature was perhaps the most malicious and defamatory political mailings I have ever read, and this comes from an avid political observer of over thirty years."
According to court records, despite the letter from Hamil, the Hendrix campaign never issued a retraction.
Bennett and Reid are represented by Alpharetta attorney Eric S. Chofnas and Robert L. Goldstucker of Atlanta.
Chofnas said a pattern of harassment against his clients, including surveillance, started during the county police force issue.
"There are several incidents of what we say were illegal surveillance," said Chopnas.
Chofnas said his clients aren't public figures, making the claims even more egregious and damaging.
The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were among the targets of the "illegal activities of Hendrix and the other defendants."
"By engaging in such egregious and arbitrary government actions, Hendrix has turned a quiet north Georgia County into a fascist state where private citizens cannot exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech, political expression and free association without fear of the most severe reprisals, carried under color of law and backed by the full weight of the County's law enforcement resources," according to court documents.
The lawsuit alleges Hendrix formed a "Strike Force" in 1999 in anticipation of his reelection campaign in 2000.
According to court documents, the Strike Force was formed to "investigate 50 to 75 private citizens of Forsyth County who might be opposed to Hendrix's reelection."
According to court documents, the Hendrix campaign included— among others— consultants Century Strategies, the Stoneridge Group and three unnamed consultant "John Does."
Chofnas said he expects discovery to determine the names of the unnamed consultants and 10 "John Doe" sheriff's officers involved.
Other defendants named in the lawsuit include Chief Deputy Earl Singletary, Deputy David W. Waters, Deputy James L. Lockhart, The Mail Works, Inc. and Data Productions, Inc.
The lawsuit alleges Hendrix "corrupted his office's Internal Affairs Office" and "converted it into a Gestapo-like agency."
The lawsuit alleges deputies followed and harassed Mrs. Bennett.
"On July 28, 2000 and again on July 29, 2000 deputies stopped Mrs. Bennett while she was driving in the vicinity of her residence," the lawsuit said. "The deputies issued two citations to Mrs. Bennett for allegedly speeding and failing to stop at a stop sign. Such stops were made without probable cause for the purposes of harassment and intimidation."
The lawsuit said Reid was falsely accused of "open dumping of solid waste" in a July 5, 2000 incident by Deputy Lockhart, who was assigned as the county's environmental officer. The materials in question were asphalt fill materials and were not classified as "solid waste" in the county code, the lawsuit claims.