North Myrtle Beach defamation lawsuit could be headed to trial

A federal magistrate judge has set a tentative trial date of June 3 in a defamation lawsuit involving William Bailey, this city’s former public safety director, and Randy Fisher, the ex-police lieutenant accused of spreading lies about Bailey’s actions during a 2009 wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in the Barefoot Resort neighborhood.

Bailey accused Fisher of defamation in a counterclaim filed as part of Fisher’s wrongful termination lawsuit against North Myrtle Beach and several of its top officials. The city won that lawsuit in August when a judge said Fisher could not provide any specific examples of legal wrongdoing by city officials. That ruling left Bailey’s defamation counterclaim as the last issue to be settled.

Bailey, in court documents, accuses Fisher of making false statements about Bailey’s response to the wildfire. Bailey – who was forced to retire from the city in 2010 for unrelated reasons – also says Fisher made false accusations that Bailey squelched a criminal domestic violence investigation as a political favor and interfered in police calls related to a nightclub owned by one of Mayor Marilyn Hatley’s top campaign supporters.

Fisher has asked a judge to rule against Bailey without a jury trial, saying in court documents that Bailey is a public figure and cannot prove Fisher acted with malice when he made the statements. For public figures to win defamation lawsuits, they must not only prove that statements made about them were false but also provide clear and convincing evidence that the person making the statements knew they were false or acted with reckless disregard for their truthfulness.

Fisher “made the statements based on his belief and observations,” Bonnie Hunt, Fisher’s lawyer, said in court documents filed this month.

Charles Thompson, a lawyer representing Bailey, said in court documents that the bases for many of Fisher’s statements “were flimsy or non-existent” and that in a deposition Fisher “admitted that he speculated and made these conclusions without any real factual basis.”

Thompson said a jury should decide whether Fisher’s statements meet the standard for defamation of a public official.

Fisher filed his lawsuit against the city last year, alleging that he was forced to resign on Nov. 12, 2009, because he had been critical of his bosses, raised questions about preferential treatment of some employees and was wrongfully accused of providing confidential information to a city resident about a wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in the Barefoot Resort community earlier that year. Fisher’s resignation followed a 12-year career with the city’s public safety department.

Following his forced resignation, Fisher provided The Sun News with copies of recorded conversations he secretly made during a two-year period when he worked at the public safety department. Those conversations included descriptions of Bailey and others making police decisions based on political alliances, officers making crude sexual remarks about female co-workers and crime victims and officers afraid to report alleged misconduct for fear of reprisal.

The city fired a longtime police detective and the department’s second in command after the recordings were made public. The city also provided mandatory training to prevent sexual harassment and hired a group to survey public safety employees about the department’s morale and needs.

Fisher said he started recording conversations after he suspected that Bailey was targeting him for firing because he complained about perceived unethical and improper behavior in the department.

Bailey survived the Fisher recordings but was forced to retire in 2010 after former City Manager John Smithson said Bailey lied about the storage of his police handgun, which was stolen from his unlocked truck. Smithson retired shortly after firing Bailey, who said he did not lie to city officials and has filed a separate, pending, wrongful termination lawsuit against the city.