Mike Sistrunk agrees to $225,000 settlement with Lee County

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Jul. 10—LEESBURG — Former Lee County Co-Manager Mike Sistrunk will receive a payment of $225,000, bringing more than four months of accusations, denials, and legal actions to a close.

The Lee County Board of Commissioners, the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), John Wheaton and Sistrunk reached a mediated settlement agreement late Thursday.

The issue began shortly after Sistrunk turned in his letter of resignation on Feb. 22 to the Lee County Commission. In response, Commissioner John Wheaton wrote a letter to the Editor of the Lee County Ledger that ran in the paper's March 3 edition, alleging a number of inappropriate actions by Sistrunk. Wheaton reaffirmed these allegations in the March 7 edition of the Albany Herald.

On May 7, Sistrunk's attorney, Louis Hatcher of Watson Spence LLP, sent a letter to the Lee County Board of Commissioners informing them that the firm had been retained by Sistrunk to "investigate, and take legal action against Lee County Commissioner John Wheaton for the series of false, unfounded, and unsupported defamatory attacks against Mr. Sistrunk by Commissioner Wheaton in the Lee County Ledger and Albany Herald." On May 28, Hatcher sent an ante litem notice to commissioners notifying them of the demands made by Sistrunk in response to Wheaton's allegations.

The Albany Herald received notification that a letter written by Raleigh Rollins of Alexander & Vann LLP addressed to Hatcher in response to the ante litem notice appeared in the July 7 edition of the Ledger.

In the letter, Rollins stated, "In accordance with your request, for the reasons set forth below, Lee County declines to accept Mr. Sistrunk's settlement demand. As an initial matter, as you may know, any claim that Mi- (sic) Sistrunk may assert against Lee County as a result of comments that were allegedly made by Commissioner Wheaton are barred by sovereign immunity."

Included in the letter were several references to case law related to sovereign immunity in Georgia to reinforce the county's argument. It went on to state that under tort law, "the doctrine of respondeat superior does not apply, the board did not take any action that authorized or directed any commissioner to make comments about Mr. Sistrunk. For that reason, as well, Lee County cannot be held liable for any comments that Commissioner Wheaton may have made with respect to Mr. Sistrunk."

The letter also contends that, "In Georgia, comments about public officials in their official capacity are privileged. ... Because Mr. Sistrunk was the co-county manager of Lee County when Commissioner Wheaton allegedly made his comments, the privilege applies in this situation.

"Finally, at this point, it is difficult to see how Mr. Sistrunk has sustained damages of $500,000. In an article published in The Albany Herald on May 15, there was some suggestion that Wheaton's alleged comments would make it difficult for Mr. Sistrunk to find employment in the area. However, based on an article from The Albany Herald on May 26, I understand that Mr. Sistrunk has now accepted a job with Dougherty County. ... It does not appear that Mr. Sistrunk will miss a paycheck. For the reasons set forth above, Lee County declines to accept Mr. Sistrunk's settlement demand."

The Albany Herald contacted Lee County Commissioner Rick Muggridge for comment on Rollins' letter.

"I have not read the article or have any knowledge of what it said related to the potential lawsuit," Muggridge said. "However, I did receive notification this morning (Friday) that the county and ACCG have reached a settlement with Mike Sistrunk."

Asked the amount of the settlement, Muggridge said that the amount was not included in the notification.

Following the conversation with Muggridge, the Herald contacted Hatcher, who confirmed that a mediated settlement had been reached and that Sistrunk would receive $225,000.

"Without a lawsuit even being filed, the amount of the settlement would indicate that the allegations made against Mike were false," Hatcher said. "Although the demands for a public apology and the resignation of Wheaton were not part of the final settlement, this amount can only be interpreted as an admission that the statements against Mike were hurtful and harmful."

Responding to a message seeking comment, Lee Commission Chairman Billy Mathis said, "Our insurance company resolved the matter. Please direct further questions to them."

Hatcher went on to say that if Wheaton or anyone had evidence that the statements the commissioner made were truthful, he would be more than willing to take their deposition and make it public.

"I would like to thank Commissioners Rick Muggeridge and Luke Singletary for their honesty in respect to this issue," Hatecher said. "I just hope that Mike Sistrunk can now put this chapter of his life behind him and move on. The citizens of Lee County now know enough for us to do what we need to do. It's up to us to ensure we have the right people governing our county."

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