Libel lawsuit against former St. Marys councilman dismissed

Jan. 9—A libel lawsuit against Camden County Commissioner Jim Goodman has been dismissed by Brunswick Judicial Circuit Judge Roger Lane.

Goodman was a St. Marys City Council member at the time he was sued in July by former Camden County Administrator Steve Howard over an advertisement published in a local weekly newspaper.

In the ad, Goodman criticized Howard for his lack of oversight over the Camden County Public Service Authority (PSA), where more than $3.5 million was stolen over a 15-year period from 2002 until 2017.

Howard was not hired until 2007, five years after the thefts started.

Former Camden PSA Director William Brunson is currently in federal prison on tax evasion charges.

Goodman said Lane dismissed the case after an anti SPLAPP suit was filed in response to Howard's lawsuit.

SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. An anti-SLAPP motion is a motion to strike lawsuits brought "primarily to chill the valid exercise of constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances."

Howard's lawsuit was dismissed because as a public official, there's a higher standard for libel.

Goodman said Howard, as county administrator, should have questioned why the PSA had never been audited.

The PSA Board, made up of the mayors of Kingsland, St. Marys and Woodbine, as well as two county commissioners, was also criticized for its lack of oversight and for never asking for an independent audit.

"He read way too much into what I said," Goodman said of the ad. "I knew I had no intent. The top man is always responsible."

No state charges have been filed against Brunson or three others arrested for their alleged roles in the theft.

Former Camden County Finance Director Mike Fender and his wife, Carolyn Fender, were arrested for allegedly receiving about $500,000 in fictitious grant money for their school, Advance Learning Center, now located in St. Marys. Monthly cash payments of $17,000 in alleged grant money were paid by Brunson to the Fenders.

A fourth suspect, Shawnta Jenkins, the former PSA assistant director, was also arrested for her alleged role in the missing funds. She was charged with felony theft by deception, conspiracy to defraud a political subdivision and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Goodman said he plans to ask for a grand jury to look at the case.

Investigators with the Camden County Sheriff's Office are asking the Georgia Attorney General for a special prosecutor to handle the case and file state charges before the statute of limitations expires.

More charges are pending in the case, including against people not already charged.