George v. Fabri, 25311.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
Citation345 S.C. 440,548 S.E.2d 868
Decision Date25 June 2001
Docket NumberNo. 25311.,25311.
PartiesG. Robert GEORGE and G. Robert George & Associates, Inc., Appellants, v. Margaret D. FABRI, Respondent.

345 S.C. 440
548 S.E.2d 868

G. Robert GEORGE and G. Robert George & Associates, Inc., Appellants,
Margaret D. FABRI, Respondent

No. 25311.

Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Heard May 8, 2001.

Decided June 25, 2001.

345 S.C. 445
Charles J. Baker, III, of Buist, Moore, Smythe & McGee, P.A., of Charleston, for appellants

Armand Derfner and D. Peters Wilborn, Jr., of Derfner & Wilborn, LLC, of Charleston, for respondent.

WALLER, Justice:

Appellants G. Robert George (George) and G. Robert George and Associates, Inc. (GRGA) appeal from the grant of summary judgment to respondent Margaret D. Fabri (Fabri). We affirm.


This is a defamation case. In November 1997, Fabri and George opposed each other as candidates for the James Island District 12 seat on the Charleston City Council. In the first election, Fabri won by one vote. This election was set aside due to a poll worker's error. George won the second election. The allegations of defamation relate to statements Fabri made in between the two elections.

The statements were published on Fabri's website and in campaign materials. There are three categories of statements at issue: (1) those related to Dr. Henry Jordan and the South Carolina Citizens for Life's endorsement of George; (2) those related to a potential conflict of interest George would have as a council member due to his position as district engineer of the James Island Public Service District (JIPSD); and (3) those

345 S.C. 446
related to engineering contracts George and GRGA received from the JIPSD

Dr. Henry Jordan Statements

South Carolina Citizens for Life is a pro-life organization, and LIFEPAC is its political action committee. In between the two November elections, LIFEPAC endorsed George in a letter addressed "Dear Pro-Life Voter."1 Included in the printed letterhead were the names of those on the Advisory Board of South Carolina Citizens for Life. Henry Jordan, a surgeon from Anderson, was listed on the letterhead. Dr. Jordan, a member of the state Board of Education, had made state-wide news a few months before when, during a Board meeting, he advocated posting the Ten Commandments in all public schools and said "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims."

On the day before the election, in response to the endorsement, Fabri posted an item on her website which stated as follows in pertinent part:

Anderson physician Dr. Henry Jordan, whose racist remarks including "Screw the Buddhists and kill the Muslims" made news around the nation earlier this year—and a group of right-wing radicals of which he is a member, this weekend endorsed GOP candidate G. Robert "Bobby" George in a mass mailing.
The mailing ... is the first hard evidence of George's connections to Jordan and the radical right throughout South Carolina. ...
It appears that in his desperation not to lose again, Mr. George has shown his true nature by asking for help from Jordan and his radical organization. We think this settles once and for all the character issues that we had raised at the beginning of the campaign, and proves that Mr. George does in fact espouse dangerously radical ideas about society and supports governmental regulation of our citizen's [sic] most intimate personal lives. Can it be that Mr. George also supports Dr. Jordan's supremacist views and his support
345 S.C. 447
for government restrictions on religious freedoms? We believe it is now clear that George would be a danger to the community, and all the residents of the City of Charleston, if he were ever elected to city council. We believe that Mr. George and his handlers have raised these issues about "reproductive rights" and Christian superiority as a diversion from the real legitimate issues of the campaign. ...

George alleged in his complaint that these statements implied that he is racist and holds supremacist views.

Fabri testified in her deposition that after reading the endorsement letter and seeing Dr. Jordan's name on the letterhead, it was clear to her that Dr. Jordan was endorsing George. According to Fabri, Dr. Jordan's remarks about Buddhists and Muslims could be perceived as being supremacist and racist. She stated, however, that she did not know what George thought of Dr. Jordan's comments, and did not know if George is a racist. Nonetheless, in her opinion, it is reasonable to assume that a candidate who is endorsed by an organization with Dr. Jordan as a member could be considered as sharing similar beliefs as Dr. Jordan. Furthermore, Fabri testified that George must have had some input into getting and accepting the endorsement.

Steve Abrams, Fabri's public relations consultant,2 testified that he viewed Dr. Jordan's name on the letterhead as indicative of his active involvement in the organization. Abrams stated that since Dr. Jordan's remarks were about Buddhists and Muslims "who probably aren't Caucasians," a racial issue could be implied. In addition, Abrams testified that candidates are never "spontaneously endorsed" but instead have to "do something" to get endorsed.3 He further stated that the intention of the statement was to show that George essentially accepted an endorsement from Dr. Jordan and that this was representative of George's "true nature."

345 S.C. 448
Conflict of Interest Statements

Fabri made statements related to George's position as district engineer of the JIPSD and the fact that a seat on city council would result in a conflict of interest for him:

Candidate G. Robert George is a paid engineering consultant to the James Island PSD. Since the City of Charleston CPW and the James Island PSD have overlapping jurisdictions that have resulted in nasty legal battles, and since the CPW is answerable to the city council, Mr. George will have a conflict of interest should he be elected to city council and retain his PSD contracts. We think Mr. George owes the voters an explanation of what actions he will take to avoid a conflict, such as stepping down as a consultant to the PSD. ...

In addition, Fabri published the following statement on her website:

In an attempt to disclose the details of Mr. George's involvement with the PSD, we submitted a freedom of information request to the PSD. ... We asked to see all contracts and a list of payments made to Mr. George and his company. ... Mr. George (and his company) were paid $538,715.06 over the past 5 years
Although Mr. George now says that he will not do any further consulting with the PSD if elected, he entered into a new contract with the PSD just months ago, after he announced that he was running for council, that requires him to serve as "District Engineer" through the year 2000! We feel this is proof positive that he has an unresolvable ethical conflict. ...
As a city councilman, he would have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers of the city which would be best served by annexing the rest of James Island and consolidating the cost of the CPW and PSD.
Anything that would dismantle the PSD would cause Mr. George to lose his $100,000 per year salary from the PSD projects (based on the last 5 years actual payments), so he's got a direct financial interest that would run contrary to his fiduciary responsibility as a councilman.

Hence, the reason he's so defensive about this matter.

345 S.C. 449
Fabri testified it was her belief that since George had an economic interest in the "viability" of the JIPSD and "the stated objective of the City of Charleston was to annex [the JIPSD] out of existence," then his election to the city council could constitute a conflict of interest

After the election, George resigned as the JIPSD's district engineer. According to George, he resigned to fulfill a campaign promise, and not because there was any ethical conflict. George and GRGA continue to perform other engineering services for the JIPSD; however, pursuant to a State Ethics Commission opinion, George does not vote on any matters that directly affect GRGA's economic interests.

Engineering Contracts Statements

Fabri published the following statement regarding engineering contracts George received from the JIPSD:

The Truth about Bob George. ...
Bob George says he's a Conservative, and he wants to protect your tax dollars ...
But in the past 5 years he has received over HALF A MILLION of YOUR TAX DOLLARS doing consulting work for the James Island Public Service District, an agency that he himself used to chair—and his father in law used to be on as well.
These contracts required no competitive bidding, so there was no one looking out for the James Island Taxpayers. They look like "sweetheart" insider contracts to us—nepotism at its worst. Not exactly the type of behavior you would have expected from a "Conservative" Republican.
Now he wants to be on the Charleston City Council so he can do to the City Taxpayers what he's already doing to the rest of the taxpayers on James Island ... use his inside contacts to land huge consulting contracts at taxpayer expense.

George alleged that these statements were defamatory because the consulting contracts were awarded after a "public competitive selection process and were not the result of insider dealing or nepotism."

345 S.C. 450
George was an elected JIPSD commissioner from 1977 to 1980, and he had served as the chair of the JIPSD. His father-in-law, George Witham, served as a commissioner in the 1980's. He was not related to any of the commissioners who served on the JIPSD from 1992 through 1997.

Fabri testified that she had been told that George "appeared to be getting all the contracts" with the JIPSD. She stated that a JIPSD commissioner told her that in the 1980's George's father-in-law wanted the JIPSD to hire George as district engineer, and that George was upset when he was not selected. Moreover, Fabri stated that loyalty to George's father-in-law by those who had served with him on JIPSD extended to support for George. In her opinion, this was nepotism.

Regarding the statement...

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