‘Klan’ comment draws $2.3 million lawsuit
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Mar 11, 2014, 15:50
HOPEWELL — A former candidate for sheriff is suing a member of City Council in response to a comment posted online the day before the Nov. 5 election.
Hopewell police officer Catherine Mitchell filed the lawsuit after Councilor Brenda Pelham posted a status on the social media website Facebook.
The comment, which as of press time is still visible on the website, calls into question Mitchell and Commonwealth’s Attorney Rick Newman’s involvement in the resignation of former African-American police chief, Steve Martin, who resigned in 2011.
Mitchell has been a member of the Hopewell Police Department since 1989 and currently serves as a master patrolman.
In her post, Pelham states, “I believe Mitchell and definitely Newman were a part of the Klan that politicked behind the scene that had a part in ensuring he [Martin] resigned from his position.” At the end of her post, Pelham signed it as “Councilor Brenda Pelham.”
The lawsuit, which was filed on Feb. 27 in Colonial Heights Circuit Court, states that Pelham’s comment was meant to imply both Mitchell and Newman are members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Both Mitchell and Pelham said they could not comment on the pending case and referred any further questions to their lawyers.
Pelham stated that she “unfortunately” could not make a comment at this time.
“Ms. Pelham, in publishing all the false and defamatory statements about Ms. Mitchell as alleged in this Complaint, was acting both in her individual capacity and in her capacity as a member of the City Council for the City of Hopewell,” the lawsuit states.
Though signing her post “Councilor Brenda Pelham,” Mayor Mike Bujakowski said, to his knowledge, Pelham was not acting on behalf of city council or in any capacity as councilor.
“I really don’t know anything about it,” Bujakowski said when asked about the lawsuit facing the fellow council member. “I saw what she posted on Facebook. There is nothing abut this that involves council.”
In the day following her Facebook post, WTVR, a local CBS affiliate, conducted a television interview with Pelham regarding her post on Facebook and the misspelling and improper capitalization of the word “clan.”
Wayne Covil, senior WTVR reporter, states that he asked Councilor Pelham about the post and “…told me she was surprised when people told her how she spelled clan with a ‘k.’’ Once on camera Pelham states, “It probably was done subconsciously.”
At the end of the broadcast, Pelham again appears on camera stating, “It had nothing to do with what people are accusing me of. If you’re convicted by a word, that’s your choice. I know my intent.”
The video broadcast can still be accessed on wtvr.com and was also used as evidence in the defamation suit filed by Mitchell.
Despite Pelham’s intent, the lawsuit against her claims, “the statements made by the Defendant set forth above and concerning the Plaintiff were made with actual malice; that is, they were made either with knowledge of the falsity of the statements and/or reckless disregard for their truth.”
The lawsuit also uses other comments made by Pelham on the original post as exhibits. Such as one where Pelham states, “He [Martin] did resign but it was under duress. The Hopewell Citizens for Good “Bad” Government and these candidates are the new G.O.B.s y’all continually talk about.”
The post, as the lawsuit claims, was written with the implication that Mitchell “is and was a ‘good ole boy’ who participated in forcing the resignation of Hopewell’s former Chief of Police on account of his race, are false, defamatory, and without facts to support them.”
The other exhibit that was given was another comment that appeared on the original post, “I know the word ‘racist’ has not come out of my mouth towards any one candidate Mr. Mitchell. What I said was concerning afflications (sic) with the Tea Party,” Pelham wrote in response to a comment. She goes on to state, “Tea Party members would definitely send us, African Americans, back to the stone ages. They hate us for the sake of hating. Now that’s what I said!!!”
During the election, Mitchell ran as an independent.
“As a direct result and proximate result of the Defendant’s false and defamatory statements, the Plaintiff has suffered, continues to suffer, and will in the future suffer, injuries and actual damages including damage to her professional reputation and standing, diminished standing in the community, loss of earning capacity, embarrassment, humiliation, mental and emotional suffering and other damages,” the lawsuit states.
Mitchell is suing Pelham for $2 million in compensatory damages and 350,000 for punitive damages. A trial by jury has been demanded.