Lowe’s attorney sends letter to Jones after CNN documentary

Published: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 7:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 29, 2012 at 7:34 p.m.

A recent CNN documentary has spurred an attorney for Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe to send written allegations of defamation to Stafford Jones, the head of the Alachua County Republican Party.

The program, “Voters in America: Who Counts,” aired in October and focused on the tougher voting laws the Republican-controlled Legislature passed in 2011.

During the program, CNN reporter Joe Johns said Jones recommended to Ocala Republican state Rep. Dennis Baxley, the sponsor of the controversial legislation, that the state crack down on the ability to change voting addresses on Election Day because, according to Jones, out-of-town voters came to Gainesville to vote for a gay mayoral candidate.

Lowe, who is gay, won a 2010 runoff for mayor by 42 votes. A subsequent lawsuit challenged the election results and alleged, among other things, that the ability to change voting addresses on the day of the election had led to illegal voter registration by non-city residents. A judge dismissed that suit in 2010.

“Your continued claim that Mayor Lowe encouraged or requested that individuals come to Gainesville and illegally change their address in order to vote for Mayor Lowe is false, malicious and since it indicates he has committed a crime of encouraging voter fraud is per se defamatory,” attorney Cherie H. Fine wrote in an Oct. 19 letter to Jones.

The letter went on to say that, if Jones continued to assert “this falsehood,” the result could be litigation seeking financial damages for the harm to Lowe’s reputation.

The letter from Fine noted that Lowe, as a public figure, had to meet the higher threshold of “actual malice” to have a case for defamation. That, Fine wrote, means showing that Jones knew the allegations were false or that he had “reckless disregard” for the likelihood they were false.

“Given that the comments have absolutely no basis in fact and were fabricated to gain political advantage in a contested election, actual malice should be easy to establish,” Fine wrote.

Lowe declined to comment on Monday, saying the issue could end up in litigation.

Jones said he has done nothing defamatory.

“Look at the CNN documentary. They didn’t even mention his name,” Jones said. “All I said was people came to town to vote. It doesn’t mention his name … It doesn’t say he conspired to do it.”

In a response to Fine dated Oct. 26, Jones’ Tallahassee-based attorney, Richard E. Coates, said the allegations of defamatory statements were “unfounded and unsubstantiated” and “false.”

Coates, the general counsel for the Republican Party of Florida, wrote that the “voting issues” from the 2010 election also were raised in Internet discussions and on the local talk radio program “Talk of the Town.”

“As you rightly admit, Mayor Craig Lowe is a public figure and can and should be the subject of robust debate,” Coates wrote.

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