DA careful about suit filed against Petersburg

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The civil law suit filed against Petersburg - alleging constitutional violations over the removal of an alderman - mentions the district attorney's office twice and the prosecutor is approaching those issues very carefully.

"I'm not going to get into who said what about what," District Attorney Chuck Crawford said after being asked about a reference to Assistant District Attorney Ann Filer, a former judge in Nashville.

Filer is identified in the complaint as someone who was consulted by Petersburg officials who reportedly quoted her as saying an act attributed to Anthony Nichols - the complainant who says he was wrongfully removed from the board - could be described as a crime.

Nichols' attorney, Michael Wall, says he doesn't know if Filer said as much and he's clear about his client not breaking any law. Wall says Nichols was removed because he asked embarrassing questions about the town recorder and police chief, not the reasons used when attempts were made to get Nichols to resign.

These circumstances started in October. Nichols received a photo on his cell phone and he says he showed it to Petersburg's police chief and an alderman. The photo "included a photo of Sara Palin's head superimposed on another woman's topless body," according to the suit.

Town Recorder Dawn Forlines saw Nichols show the image to the two men, the suit states. Nichols declined to show it to her, but she "grabbed his hand and turned it so that she could see the display of his cell phone."

Forlines has declined to describe the chain of events when asked by the Tribune, but other officials have said she didn't grab Nichols' hand or phone to look at the picture.

Mayor James Owen, then the vice mayor who's also a Lincoln County Sheriff's detective, "stated that he had conducted an investigation into this matter," the civil complaint states. "He said that ... Filer advised that ... Nichols could be charged with a felony [and] that Forlines threatened to sue Petersburg and ... Nichols over the situation."

Subsequently, The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was consulted independently and TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said, "Our crime statistics auditors don't feel like this incident is criminal."

Furthermore, Police Chief Larry Hardin's report describing Nichols' display of Palin's face on another woman's torso as "promotion of obscene material" does not fit the TBI's Tennessee Incident Based Reporting System parameters, meaning it's not a crime the TBI tracks for statistical purposes, Helm said.

According to Nichols' attorney, it's protected political speech and removing him from office because of it is a violation of his constitutionally protected First Amendment right to free speech.

When Nichols didn't resign over the photo, he was removed, the suit alleges. Attempts to reach the mayor and aldermen brought statements from two who said their lawyer counseled them against making public statements.

"I'm still going to look into it," the district attorney said in a telephone interview over the weekend when he declined to comment on specifics, explaining he's not certain about what really happened or what was said.

A copy of Nichols' complaint against Petersburg and almost all of its town board was sent to Crawford "so that he may decide whether to approve the quo warranto claim brought on relation of the State of Tennessee."

A quo warranto action asks a judge to have officials explain in court what authority they had to take an action. In this case, Nichols is asking the board to say why they think his removal was legal.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court at Winchester points out there is no provision in the town Charter on removal and that the board's action was not accomplished through Marshall County Chancery Court, the more appropriate route if it's to be attempted.

"I'm going to be talking to that attorney about it this week," Crawford said of Wall's offer to the prosecutor to participate in the challenge to the town board's authority to remove Nichols.

"I will meet my statutory obligation," Crawford said.