Jury hears opening arguments, testimony in lawsuit filed by Myrtle Beach-area lobbyist Mark Kelley against The Sun News

troot@thesunnews.comMay 5, 2014 

Testimony began Monday in the lawsuit of Myrtle Beach area lobbyist Mark Kelley against The Sun News on claims he was defamed in articles written in 2010 about gubernatorial campaign contributions made a year earlier.

Kelley began his testimony Monday afternoon after a jury of eight men and six women, including two alternates, were selected to hear the case with Circuit Court Judge Larry Hyman presiding.

Kelley filed the suit in May 2012 against investigative reporter David Wren and The Sun Publishing Co., seeking actual damages to compensate for “his loss of and/or damage to his good name, his personal and business reputation,” according to the suit.

While testifying Kelley said he was unaware that during a private luncheon in June 2009 Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, planned to give then-gubernatorial candidate Gresham Barrett an envelope of cashier’s checks totaling $84,000. Kelley said he would have attended the luncheon because of his friendship with Barrett, but knew that as a lobbyist he is not allowed to handle any collection or distribution of campaign funds.

Jim Stevens, Kelley’s attorney, told jurors during his opening remarks that Kelley’s reputation was damaged by Wren’s reporting on the issue of the campaign contributions and that Kelley did nothing wrong in the situation.

“A life lasts a lifetime, a reputation lasts forever,” Stevens said of Kelley, who before he retired in 2002 served 10 years as a S.C. legislator, which included time on the ethics committee. “One of the things he guards very closely is his ethics.”

Jay Bender, who is representing The Sun News and David Wren, said the stories examined the contributions, which were written on sequentially numbered cashier checks, issued the same day from the same bank on accounts from various real estate limited liability companies, and did not defame Kelley or his reputation.

“If Mark Kelley asked people to give money to Gresham Barrett’s campaign, that’s illegal. There’s nothing in the news reports that says that,” Bender said. “We don’t know what went on at that dinner. . . . There is nothing that says that money was handed over by Mark Kelley. There is nothing that says Mark Kelley touched the envelope.”

Bender went on to tell jurors that the newspaper and Wren reported on the money changing hands and sought to examine where it came from. He said that Kelley’s reputation was not harmed and that Kelley maintains his same job with the same clients and he has received a raise for his work as a lobbyist since the stories were published.

While testifying, Kelley said Wren’s stories incorrectly stated he was a lobbyist for the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and he didn’t understand why his name was continually linked to the contributions.

“Do you know why he drug you into this thing?” Stevens asked Kelley on the witness stand.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Kelley said. Later, he testified that “Mr. Dean handed an envelope to Mr. Barrett, he thanked Mr. Dean and handed the envelope” to a staff member.

Testimony is expected to resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or follow her at Twitter.com/tonyaroot.

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