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Attorney points to race, politics behind Washington County lawsuit

FAYETTEVILLE -- An attorney representing Washington County apologized for citing race and politics as possible reasons for a former employee suing the county judge, according to Circuit Court documents.

Jason Owens, a Little Rock attorney with Rainwater, Holt and Sexton, filed a motion Oct. 2 to dismiss a class-action lawsuit brought in April by George Butler against the county, several employees and County Judge Joseph Wood. Owens' pointed out Wood's race and politics in a footnote in his motion.

Illegal exaction lawsuit

Illegal exaction involve claims of illegal spending. The lawsuit brought by former county employee George Butler claims six department heads should return taxpayer money paid to them by the county because they were hired without following Quorum Court-approved employee policies. The combined annual salaries budgeted for the six is $377,458, according to documents released earlier this year.

Source: Staff Report

Who’s in the lawsuit?

The lawsuit brought against Washington County also names Joseph Wood, county judge; Brian Lester, county attorney; Carl Gales, Wood’s chief of staff; Julie Harris, executive assistant to the county judge; Jim Kimbrough, Planning Department director; Sharon Lloyd, grant administrator; Dwight Gonzales, building and grounds director; and Josh Medina, county veterans services officer. All were hired by Wood this year.

Source: Staff Report

"The plaintiff certainly disagrees with the county judge politically and, possibly, otherwise on a variety of issues. Judge Wood is the first Republican judge in decades and the first African-American judge in an even longer period," Owens wrote.

Butler was chief of staff for former County Judge Marilyn Edwards, a Democrat who didn't run for re-election last year. He was county attorney for just over 30 years until 2014, when he retired. Butler is white.

Butler's class-action lawsuit claims Wood didn't follow county policy when he fired and hired department heads, and the money paid to the new employees should be returned to the county general fund. The lawsuit doesn't ask for an exact amount but asks the court to mandate the salaries of six employees hired by Wood this year be returned to the county coffers.

The Oct. 2 footnote drew questions from some justices of the peace and a pointed response from Butler's attorney, Jim Lingle.

"Judge Wood may be the first Republican judge and the first African-American judge in awhile, but he is also the first judge to violate county hiring policies and to ignore the sound public policy reason behind the rules," Lingle wrote in an Oct. 19 reply to Owens motion. "The law applies across racial and party lines."

The lawsuit has nothing to do with race or political affiliation, Lingle said.

In a Nov. 3 response to Lingle, Owens and Rainwater attorney Mike Rainwater apologized in a footnote.

"George Butler is a fine man, lawyer and long-time public servant and the undersigned counsel has always counted him a friend. Undersigned counsel intended no implications of any kind by mention of the county judge's race and personally apologizes for any confusion," according to the response.

The same document asked the judge for a hearing on Owens' motion to dismiss. The case has been postponed, and no settlement is under consideration, Owens said. No hearing has been set.

Lester said Owens has handled other cases against the county, yet justices of the peace haven't seemed interested in controlling those lawsuits. He referred specific questions about legal tactics of the case to Rainwater.

Owens said he communicates, mostly by phone, with Wood and Lester before making major decisions in the case.

Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, a Democrat representing northeastern Fayetteville and an employment lawyer, has raised concerns repeatedly about how the case is being handled. Madison emailed Lester on Oct. 28 asking who made the decision to bring up race and the reason behind the decision. Lester responded to Madison by saying the tactic was a valid, legal argument.

Lester and Madison both provided the email exchange.

"I'm not sure if you are shocked at the thought that George Butler's motive may have been racially motivated, or at the audacity that anyone would suggest such a thing against a Democrat," Lester wrote to Madison.

NW News on 11/23/2017

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