Sunday, March 3, 2024

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Who paid to settle defamation case filed against sheriff?

QUESTION: Who actually paid the $430,000 sum that a former Mebane couple have accepted to settle a defamation claim which they had filed against Alamance County’s sheriff and his former public information officer after they were publicly accused of human trafficking in 2016?

ANSWER: It doesn’t appear that either sheriff Terry Johnson nor his now-retired pubic information officer Randy Jones willith have to come up with the six-figure settlement which their attorneys recently negotiated with former Mebane residents Aris Hines and Brandi Thomason.

Nor, for that matter, will Alamance County’s taxpayers be on the hook for this $430,000 payout, which a federal court formally confirmed after it was hammered out during a settlement conference on July 28.

According to Alamance County’s attorney Rik Stevens, the entire cost of this settlement will be picked up by Sedgwick Insurance – which handles the legal liability on behalf of the sheriff as well as his deputies.

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“The settlement was paid with insurance funds,” Stevens stressed in an interview Monday. “So, no county dollars were used to settle the claims.”

This settlement has, moreover, brought an end to a four-year-long legal dispute that began when Hines and Thomason sued the sheriff and his one-time PIO for defamation, malicious prosecution, and other wrongs that they believed they had suffered after they were arrested for allegedly fudging the records of a Nigerian sports phenom so he could play football and basketball for Eastern High School in 2016.

Although neither Hines nor Thompson were officially charged with anything more serious than doctoring school records, Johnson had publicly hinted that their alleged mischief was part of a broader human trafficking conspiracy that aimed to exploit talented young people through the notoriety they received in high school athletics.

The couple, who eventually relocated from Mebane to Texas, were ultimately cleared of all the charges they faced in Alamance County in 2018. Nor did the state ever formally indict them for human trafficking as the sheriff had publicly predicted. Yet, the damage they reportedly suffered from these allegations prompted Hines and Thomason to lodge a federal lawsuit against both Johnson and his former PIO in 2019.

This lawsuit was slated to go to trial later this month when the two sides apparently reached an agreement after a settlement conference on July 28. According to the text of this settlement agreement, Hines and Thompson would voluntarily drop all of their legal claims once the sum of $430,000 was tendered within 21 days of the agreement’s acceptance.

“The parties agree and represent that they understand that this settlement is the compromise of disputed claim,” the four-page document goes on to note, “and that the terms of this settlement, or any other agreement between them, are not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the persons, firms, and corporations thereby released, by whom liability is expressly denied.”

Another term of the settlement precludes the two plaintiffs from publicly saying anything pejorative about the deal they accepted. Stevens highlighted this particular condition when he recently briefed Alamance County’s commissioners about his own role in the agreement.

“We could have recourse to claw back the settlement,” he explained in an email to the county’s governing board on Monday afternoon, “if they start going off the rails and speaking with the media or, as they insinuated during settlement discussions, were to try to write a book about their experience, should their comments veer outside of these elements and disparage the Sheriff, the County, or Randy Jones.

“Had this case gone to trial,” the county attorney added, “win or lose, they would not have been bound in this way. The amount of the settlement, however, was, and would always be, public.”

The deal struck on July 28 does, indeed, place strict limits on “plaintiffs’ communications related to the settlement.” But the agreement puts no such restrictions on the sheriff or any other defendant, who are merely forbidden to make “negative, defamatory, or disparaging remarks, reviews, comments, or statements concerning the other [parties].”

In the wake of the agreement’s approval, Johnson told The Alamance News that he was never consulted before the court signed off on the settlement, which he added he personally opposes.

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