Conservative County Commissioner Files Incendiary Lawsuit Against Defeated Opponent

Conservative County Commissioner Files Incendiary Lawsuit Against Defeated Opponent

WASHINGTON -- Cherokee County Commissioner Dr. Daniel Eichenbaum and Edward Figueroa, a former police officer, used to be friendly. They were both members of a group preparing for an apocalypse-type scenario, and they owned neighboring plots of land in Murphy, a small town in western North Carolina.

After a falling out over the group's direction, however, they became political opponents, battling last year for a seat on the county's board of commissioners. The race got ugly and, as it often does in down-ballot contests, it got personal.

Eichenbaum soundly defeated Figueroa in the November election. But the fight isn't over. Instead, it's moved to the courthouse, where Eichenbaum, who is also an ophthalmologist and radio show host, is suing his former rival for allegedly slandering his reputation during the campaign.

For now, the case is still in the early stages, and it's not clear whether it will proceed to mediation or a trial. But in either scenario, the case could affect what kinds of speech are kosher in a campaign context, at least in North Carolina. Eichenbaum and Figueroa's dispute arrives at a time when laws that prohibit lying in political campaigns are looking increasingly vulnerable -- for instance, one such Ohio law barring false statements was struck down in September.

"I was a county commissioner for four years and I'm sure people talked bad things about me, or made up stuff or whatever," former Republican Cherokee County Commissioner David Wood said, regarding Eichenbaum's suit. "But if you're running a political race, when it's over it's over, and I just think it's bad taste to sue somebody."

Bad taste or not, that's exactly what Eichenbaum is doing, with an incendiary defamation lawsuit seeking tens of thousands of dollars in damages. Eichenbaum and his wife, Rhonda Crowder, have named both Figueroa and his wife, Sandy, as defendants.

In a motion to dismiss with the pending mediation process, Figueroa wrote that he doesn't have the funds to pay for the hourly cost of a mediator chosen by Eichenbaum's attorneys. If Figueroa's claim that he's indigent is accepted at an April hearing, the case could proceed to a jury trial.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Figueroa speculated that his wife was named in the suit so Eichenbaum could go after their home, since Figueroa is currently unemployed and has limited assets. (North Carolina does not have a homestead exemption that would protect Figueroa's house in the event that he is found guilty and forced to pay out damages.)

"The reason they're suing me is they want to silence me. They want to run me out of town," he said. "They went after my life in the lawsuit."

Eichenbaum declined to comment on his suit, directing The Huffington Post to his attorney, Zeyland McKinney. McKinney said his firm does not comment on ongoing legal matters.

The suit accuses Figueroa of making various statements about Eichenbaum during the course of the campaign, including claims that Eichenbaum fed moldy hay to Figueroa's horses; that Eichenbaum belongs to a militia-style group that readies for various disaster scenarios; that Eichenbaum had inappropriately obtained prescriptions for his wife through another doctor; that Eichenbaum's medical certifications were not up to date; and that Eichenbaum and his wife had intimidated local businesses during the election.

The suit argues that the Figueroas made those statements with a "reckless disregard for the truth" and that they didn't have "reasonable grounds for believing the truth of [the] statements" -- components of the tough malicious intent standard, which Eichenbaum and his wife need to prove in order to win their case.

Figueroa, who has worked as a police officer in Florida, an undercover narcotics officer for the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office and a defense contractor in Iraq, told HuffPost that the statements he made about Eichenbaum and his wife, both online and in conversations with others, weren't made with the intent of damaging Eichenbaum professionally. Rather, he said, the statements had to be understood in the context of the campaign.

In Figueroa's response to the suit, he cites "firsthand knowledge" and "common knowledge among many in our community" to reject the claim that his statements were made without basis. He also argues that the public had a right to be informed of the matters he discussed because they concerned Eichenbaum, a public figure, and that his speech was constitutionally protected.

The two men were friendly as recently as 2010, when Figueroa brought Eichenbaum a gift from overseas -- an American flag that had flown over Baghdad. Figueroa says he advised Eichenbaum about weapons and livestock care and drove the doctor's son to baseball practice.

"I was trying to differentiate myself between him and I as an individual and as a professional, so I talked about how he ousted me because of political differences, how he was part of a right-wing group, and that, as a medical doctor, that he wasn't the thing he was claiming to be," he said.

One of the organizations to which Figueroa linked Eichenbaum during the campaign was the New Liberty Valley group. The group, Figueroa claims, was formed by "preppers" who sought firearms and communications training to prepare for various catastrophic scenarios, such as a collapse of the financial system, a natural disaster or a gun raid by the federal government.

Figueroa, citing a trend toward anti-government sentiments that made him uncomfortable, left the group in late 2013. He says his relationship with Eichenbaum deteriorated after that, and progressed to real animosity during the campaign the following year.

"It was a race like any other race. Things were being said," Figueroa told HuffPost. "I just said whatever I had to say in defense of myself on my Facebook page."

Figueroa told HuffPost that he saw members of New Liberty Valley practicing with firearms while wearing military fatigues on a neighbor's farm. He cited this as a reason for claiming that Eichenbaum was participating in militia activity.

"This is not the kind of stuff you teach for self-defense," he said. "It went beyond the prepper thing."

Wood, whose term ended last year, agreed with Figueroa's assessment that the group could accurately be described as conducting itself in a militia-type manner.

"I live not too far from Dr. Dan and I used to hunt near that area, but I quit because the gunfire was so heavy that you just could not hunt," he said. "It was like hunting at a gun range. It was just all day long. Obviously they were not hunting."

"In my opinion, if I was prepping for doomsday, the last damn thing I would want is heavy machine guns, because the thing I've learned in my military experience is that the quickest way to die is to go shooting at people," Wood continued. "That's not prepping, that's preparing for war."

David Ardia, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and co-director of UNC's Center for Media Law and Policy, called the legal dispute a "unique situation," as the winning candidate is suing the losing one. Usually it's the other way around, as in the case of a defamation suit filed last week by a failed Republican challenger to Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

"These cases are quite rare -- public officials like this typically don't file these kinds of claims because the difficulty of winning the cases is very high," Ardia told HuffPost. "We have more or less developed a legal system that leaves it to public officials to fix their reputations through their own channels of communication themselves, rather than through the courthouse."

Courts tend to be more sympathetic toward business reputations than personal reputations, making it easier in those cases to prove damages. At the same time, plaintiffs do sometimes file suit in order to silence their critics.

"You always have to wonder in these cases, what is the goal of the plaintiff? What do they want in the end?" said Ardia. "There's some value in that signaling function. Perhaps that's what's happening here -- a lawsuit is also a way to inflict harm on the person, and that can also be a motivation."

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