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Council President Says Lawyer Advised Him Against Mentioning Latest Lawsuit
June 20, 2007 - A man who claims he was defamed by a former Knightstown chief of police and alleges that a promise to hire him as a police officer was not honored filed a lawsuit last November against the Knightstown Police Department, the former police chief and the current town council president. For more than six months, however, neither the Knightstown Town Council nor its attorney, David Copenhaver, opted to inform the public about the lawsuit filed by Elijah Frank. The Banner did not become aware of the litigation, which is still pending in Henry Superior Court 1, until June 4, when its editor questioned a town council member about a reference made to the lawsuit during a special meeting the council had just held.
While the council's June 4 special meeting had nothing to do with Frank or his lawsuit, council member Steve Nelson mentioned Frank's name during the course of the meeting. When another council member, Cort Swincher, asked who Frank was, Nelson replied that he had sued the town and police department. Immediately after the meeting, Nelson confirmed that a lawsuit had been filed by Frank, but said he really didn't have any details about it.
So, why didn't council members tell the public about Frank's lawsuit as soon as they found out about it? Well, for the council's vice president, Nate Hamilton, the answer is easy: He says he never knew about Frank's lawsuit.
When contacted by The Banner last week, Hamilton, said he had never seen a copy of Frank's lawsuit, and only found out about himself during the June 4 special meeting. Asked if he was bothered by the fact that he didn't know about a lawsuit filed against the police department, a former police chief and the current town council president - and which was amended in April to add the town as a defendant - Hamilton said he wasn't, then declined further comment.
Council member Valerie Trump would not say whether she had known about the lawsuit, or whether she, like Hamilton, had been kept in the dark. Noting that the lawsuit is still pending, she also refused to say whether or not she thought the council and the town's attorney should let the citizens of Knightstown know when litigation is filed against the town, the police department and town officials or employees.
The council's three remaining members - President David Glenn, Nelson and Swincher - all acknowledged having some prior knowledge of the lawsuit. They also responded when asked about why they did not tell the public about the lawsuit before now.
"I was advised by our counsel, for right now, until they find out exactly what's going on, just not to say anything about it," Glenn told The Banner. "Right now, it's attorney client privileges, so we really are being advised not to say anything yet." He said he thought the council didn't owe the public any explanation unless something comes of Frank's lawsuit.
Nelson told The Banner he thought the town had more pressing issues to deal with at the time the lawsuit was filed and that letting the public know about it wasn't his primary concern.
"At that time, we had several issues in front of us that I felt were more suitable for discussion than a frivolous-type of lawsuit," Nelson said. "I know, myself, that's what I was looking at. I didn't give too much thought to something I was being told was frivolous." Reflecting on the matter now, he said he agreed that it might not be a bad practice for the council to simply let the public know when litigation is filed against the town or any of its officials.
Council member Cort Swincher told The Banner he doesn't believe the council has any obligation to notify the public of litigation against the town, the police department, or town officials or employees.
"To my knowledge, that information is usually available somewhere else," Swincher said. "I don't necessarily think that we're obligated to just come right out and tell everybody that we're being sued by John Doe for whatever reason. To me, it's not that big of information that we have to make an announcement about it." Like Nelson, however, he conceded that initial disclosure might be a better policy.
(Next week, The Banner will take a closer look at Frank's lawsuit. - Ed.)
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