Politics & Government

Judge: Crawford County can pursue legal fees in coroner’s failed case

ROBERTA -- A judge said Wednesday he will dismiss a lawsuit filed against Crawford County by Coroner David Allen O’Neal seeking a county car and a better office, and ruled twice against the coroner on two lesser motions.

Judge Tilman E. Self invited the county to seek attorneys’ fees that could exceed $40,000 because commissioners were paying the legal bill on both sides of the legal battle.

Outside the courthouse, O’Neal remained defiant and said if he received a phone call for service Wednesday night, he would call county commissioners to get a ride.

O’Neal filed the lawsuit this past June seeking a car, an office, Internet access at his home and other supplies he considered to be essential to doing his job. But the attorney for Crawford County commissioners, Duke R. Groover, said O’Neal dropped most of those demands in his deposition while continuing the full lawsuit.

Self was critical of two filings by O’Neal’s attorney, B. Michelle Smith, and he repeatedly asked what evidence supported Smith’s motions for Self to recuse himself from the case and to toss Groover from the case.

Self said he had no contact with District Attorney David Cooke about the case and didn’t know on what grounds Cooke had requested a criminal investigation by the GBI into the case. Self said he could only assume it involved whether O’Neal was violating his oath of office.

Cooke told The Telegraph he could not comment on the case.

O’Neal wrote to commissioners last month, saying he would faithfully execute his duties as coroner but would need a ride to do so. He repeated those claims outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon.

Asked what he would do if a call came Wednesday night, he told reporters, “I’ll let the sheriff know that I’m ready, my deputies are ready, all of us are ready to go, and we will go whenever we get some way to go. I’m going to call these county commissioners and put it simply, and tell them ‘I’m ready to go, I’m willing to do the job, I’m going to faithfully do my job as long as I’m elected to be coroner, but I do not have the equipment to do my job.’ ”

O’Neal repeated a claim that he couldn’t get insurance for his personal car while using it for the coroner’s job. Groover said O’Neal testified in his deposition that “the insurance ain’t a problem.” Groover said in court, “That’s the problem: It’s an ever-moving target.”

Smith argued that O’Neal could contaminate his personal car with any number of modern maladies, including AIDS or Ebola. O’Neal has been county coroner since 1992 and has worked in the office since 1981. He had either a car allowance or a salary increase that covered a car, Groover said.

County Manager Pat Kelly has said the county had offered O’Neal a car during the current dispute. He told The Telegraph on Wednesday that Crawford County has been paying for the commissioners’ attorney and for O’Neal’s attorney, with legal fees in excess of $40,000. Groover told reporters that he planned to seek the commissioners’ legal fees in the case and, if commissioners want him to, he also will seek to have O’Neal pay for his own attorney as well.

In pointed questioning Wednesday, Self asked Smith how Self was supposed to be able to tell commissioners what to do when the General Assembly clearly gave them a tie-breaking vote in determining what equipment the coroner’s office needed. He also asked her why she continued some legal claims, such as a demand for office space, even though O’Neal said he didn’t want them.

“The deposition was in November,” he said. “If that’s not an issue, why make them go through the hassle, aggravation, expense, money of a claim he wasn’t pursuing?”

Smith told Self that O’Neal had always been pursuing every claim, and she hoped everyone could figure out how to play nice.

Self replied: “You can’t sue to make somebody be nice to you.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.