‘Illegally recording and distributing a private conversation (wiretapping).’ Even from the get go, members in the legal community were unimpressed with the frivolous Federal lawsuit filed by Street Supervisor Tony Ashbaugh, more so since August of 2017 when Berrien County Judge Wiley found the conversation to be public not private. At that point, Ashbaugh no longer had any semblance of a legal argument in the Federal suit against the City of New Buffalo (third-party defendant), Donna Messinger, Larry Pitchford, Diana Selir, and me but he continued to push on as minimally as possible, just enough so we had to continue to retain and pay attorneys while innuendos that we violated the law continued to followed us. The case limped along for almost a year since we were served by Ashbaugh on Good Friday, 2017. And since he demanded $210,000 in damages per defendant ($840,000 total), we were at his mercy, crossing every ‘T’, dotting every ‘I’ and filing every document as directed by court rules and schedules while Ashbaugh skated, ignoring deadlines and neglecting court filings.
At the December 18, 2017 pretrial hearing, Judge Neff’s decision not to enter a motion for a summary judgment briefing date was presumably in the hope that Plaintiff Ashbaugh would drop his case since his wiretapping charges were in shreds. Although Ashbaugh appeared to shrug off any thought to cease, he made no attempt to bother with discovery in the weeks that followed, providing evidence that he never intended to take the case to jury trial. On January 9, 2018, the day before we were required to attend a Settlement Hearing in Grand Rapids, we were informed the meeting was cancelled due to Ashbaugh not filing the required documents. Several weeks after that, his attorney requested a settlement by way of a letter. Really? After missing the opportunity provided through court rules and scheduling, we were to seriously consider a plea for money through a correspondence?
The next legal hoop for the defendants was to prepare motions for summary judgement for the judge’s dismissal consideration of the case. My motion, along with the co-defendants’ motion were written and delivered according to court rules and scheduling. We awaited the 28 days Ashbaugh was allotted to present his written reply but at the last-minute, he dropped his case. Just like that, he threw in the towel, called it quits, and bailed out.
Well prepared, with a request for oral arguments by both attorneys representing the defendants, we had looked forward to our day in court. Our goal was to publicly defend our innocence.and in my case request for sanctions. Timing is everything and Ashbaugh never took the chance of being defeated but was finished when he quit.
Why did Ashbaugh file this baseless, frivolous lawsuit with no obvious intention of carrying it through to trial? This type of suit is called a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP), aimed at silencing public discourse through intimidation and fear. Since the day the City Council was threatened with a wiretap lawsuit by Ashbaugh, they have forfeited their responsibility, allowing City employees to make all decisions concerning policies and procedures at city hall. Since filing this suit, the employees successfully gained control of all surveillance videos and policies, leaving the public with no oversight capabilities. The employees also gained control of the Freedom of Information Act process by first delaying, then issuing misinformation in order to stop the flow of public information and finally they boldly disconnected the live video feed of public meetings to ensure all work at city hall is shrouded in secrecy. They might even claim success in the termination of Police Chief Larry Pitchford since from the day Ashbaugh first filed this suit, Pitchford’s reputation was on the chopping block, maligned through an article written by Linda Henderson in the New Buffalo Times. Frivolous but harmful, someone knew what he was doing.