Aiken city official files lawsuit alleging defamation
Apr. 27—A city official has filed a lawsuit accusing an Aiken County resident of defaming him.
Aiken Attorney John Harte filed a lawsuit on behalf of Aiken Economic Development Director Tim O'Briant against Don Moniak and Eureka Research LLC in the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas on Wednesday.
O'Briant is a former Aiken Standard editor who became the city's communications manager in 2017. He was later promoted to economic development director.
Eureka Research LLC is a South Carolina limited liability company formed Aug. 17, 2022. Moniak is the company's registered agent at an address north of Interstate 20 in Aiken County.
O'Briant declined to comment on the lawsuit in a statement sent to the Aiken Standard on Thursday morning. In the statement, he added it was important to note he was pursuing the lawsuit as a private citizen and not in his role as a public employee.
Moniak said he had not been served with a copy of the lawsuit and, therefore, had no comment on it.
In the complaint, O'Briant accuses Moniak, individually and as an agent of Eureka Research, of slander per se and slander per quod.
He said Moniak has engaged in a pattern of harassment and making numerous attempts to publicly damage and harass him without just cause. O'Briant added the pattern of conduct is evidence of actual malice and reckless disregard for the truth.
O'Briant specifically cites two examples: an interaction that occurred during and after the April 10 city council meeting and a Feb. 17 email sent to officers and employees of the city.
Moniak stated O'Briant had committed a form of identity theft at the end of the April 10 meeting. His statement followed an interaction between them during the meeting and comments made by City Council member Andrea Gregory following that interaction.
During the meeting, O'Briant sat directly in front of the media table in the Aiken City Council chambers and Moniak, as is his custom, sat a few rows further toward the Aiken City Council dais, providing an Aiken Standard reporter of a first-hand view of their interaction.
Moniak, who spoke during the public comment period, got up from his seat and moved toward the back of the room as the City Council discussed and ultimately continued consideration of an ordinance dissolving the Aiken Municipal Development Commission.
As he returned to his seat, Moniak began shouting to the council during the council discussion.
O'Briant told him to "Shush" and that the time for public input had ended.
Moniak responded that no one cared what O'Briant thought anyway.
Before the council adjourned, Gregory addressed Moniak's comments to O'Briant.
"I can't sit here and allow people to backtalk aggressively to our staff," Gregory said. "We listen. We take all points. We may not always agree but I'm not going to sit here and not point out that I'm not going to allow anyone to disrespect our staff."
Though the time for public input had ended, Moniak asked when the city's staff had been disrespected and Gregory responded that Moniak's comments to O'Briant were inappropriate and she would not allow comments like that to occur in the chamber.
Moniak turned to O'Briant and offered an apology.
The council then adjourned and O'Briant approached Moniak after the meeting ended.
The two may have spoken for a few seconds before Moniak began speaking loudly to O'Briant.
"No, I don't want to talk to you," Moniak said according to audio captured by the YouTube recording of the meeting.
Moniak said O'Briant had filled out a Freedom of Information Act request form using his personal information.
After Moniak left, O'Briant said Moniak had contacted him for information. He said it is his custom to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request form when people request information from him to allow the city and the requestor to track their request.
"I'm glad you just admitted that," Moniak continued. "That's identity theft, Tim."
O'Briant then walked away from Moniak toward the council dais and the room where the council holds executive sessions.
Moniak followed but stopped at the dais and told the council O'Briant had admitted to filling out the Freedom of Information Act request form for him and that he expected O'Briant to face disciplinary action.
Moniak continued to speak to the council until he was approached by Sgt. Joe O'Connor and another police officer and repeatedly asked to leave the chamber. The other officer told Moniak he could express his concerns with O'Briant's behavior at the April 24 city council meeting.
Moniak did not attend the April 24 meeting.
O'Briant also accused Moniak of publishing, with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth, false and defamatory statements in a Feb. 17, 2023 email to "various officers and employees of the city of Aiken."
O'Briant said Moniak's email accused him of being a liar — "I have accurately documented Mr. Tim O'Briant's lies." — and altering Freedom of Information Act requests: "I have ample documentation that Mr. O'Briant has altered FOIA requests."
O'Briant said Moniak's statements are slanderous per quod and slanderous per se because the statements individually and together state O'Briant committed the crime of misconduct in office.
"All of the statements made by the defendant Moniak were and are false and, upon information and belief, were known by the defendant Moniak to be false or were made by the defendant Moniak with actual malice or with reckless disregard for the truth," O'Briant said in the suit.
He adds he has suffered embarrassment, humiliation, mental distress and emotional distress because of Moniak's statements.
"The defamation has and will cause difficulties for the Plaintiff in his work and in his dealings with the members of [city] council and other city officials," O'Briant continued in the suit. "The defamation affects the Plaintiff's professional standing and limits and has damaged his future ability to earn and increase his earnings in the future."
O'Briant then said he's entitled to a judgment against Moniak and Eureka Research for actual and punitive damages in such an amount found by the court and jury.