Jury rules in favor of Myrtle Beach lobbyist in suit against The Sun News

An Horry County jury ruled in favor of Myrtle Beach area lobbyist Mark Kelley against The Sun News and investigative reporter David Wren on claims Kelley was defamed in articles written in 2010 about campaign contributions made a year earlier.

The jury awarded $400,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages against the newspaper and Wren. The jury deliberated for more than four hours before reaching unanimous verdicts on the two types of damages.

Kelley filed the suit in May 2012 against 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.

He declined to comment about the verdict after the trial.

“We are, of course, disappointed with the jury’s verdict and continue to stand by the reporting of David Wren and the journalistic ethics of The Sun News,” said Carolyn Callison Murray, editor and vice president of the newspaper. Attorneys will make post-trial arguments before the judge on Monday and the news organization will decide after that whether to appeal the ruling, she said.

The trial began Monday afternoon with opening statements and testimony, which often hinged on issues of grammar, and continued through Wednesday evening.

The judge ruled before testimony began that Kelley is a public figure, which meant the jury had to determine that actual malice was involved on the part of the reporter and newspaper.

The articles dealt with a June 2009 luncheon attended by Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Brad Dean, Kelley, then-S.C. gubernatorial candidate Gresham Barrett and a Barrett campaign staff member. At the luncheon, Dean presented Barrett with an envelope containing $84,000 in campaign donations, most of which were on sequentially numbered checks from LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations) drawn on the same bank.

Kelley said the wording of the articles, which appeared in May 2010, accused him of violating state ethics laws that prohibit lobbyists from soliciting or handling campaign donations for statewide candidates.

In his testimony Monday, Kelley said he was unaware that Dean planned to give Barrett the donations. 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 or distribute campaign funds.

"I want you to tell them [The Sun News] to quit taking their pen and using it as a sword and slashing the flesh of a reputation,” Kelley’s attorney, Jim Stevens, said during his closing statement Thursday morning.

Attorney Jay Bender, who represented Wren and the newspaper, reminded jurors in his closing remarks that Kelley’s witness, Ethics Commission deputy director and attorney Cathy Hazelwood, testified that an email forwarded April 25, 2010, from Kelley that included a solicitation for funds for Barrett was an ethics violation.

In her testimony, she also said Wren quoted her opinion correctly in his articles in which she said Kelley did not violate any rules by attending the luncheon.

Stevens told jurors that the FBI and IRS investigated the contributions and no arrests have been made or indictments issued in the case.

“I submit to you that the IRS and FBI are better investigators than David Wren,” Stevens said. “David Wren and The Sun News has a duty to report the truth, not lies or fabrications. Fact: David Wren’s articles were understood by the public. … And they understood it to accuse Mark Kelley of a crime.”

Bender told jurors that the newspaper and Wren had been reporting on a series of campaign contributions and were seeking to determine where the money, including that distributed at the luncheon, came from.

Kelley’s reputation was not harmed, Bender told the jury. He had kept his same job with the same clients and has since received a raise from Coastal Carolina University for his work as a lobbyist.

He asked jurors to read the articles in their entirety and they would see the accounts did not defame Kelley or his reputation.

“What’s the role of a newspaper in society? It’s to look into dark places,” Bender said. “We think sometimes people buy influence they are not entitled to.”