Smithfield Herald

Former Smithfield town clerk can’t recover legal bills

Smithfield taxpayers won’t have to cover a former town clerk’s legal bills.

On Oct. 31, a judge dismissed Debbie Godwin’s bid to have Smithfield pay legal bills stemming from a defamation suit brought against her by former town manager Eric Williams, current Town Manager Paul Sabiston told the Town Council last week.

Williams sued Godwin, claiming she defamed him in comments to the Town Council, which fired him amid a pay-raise scandal. Godwin’s bid to recover legal expenses from the town became moot when a judge also dismissed Williams’ suit.

Separately, Williams sued the Town Council for breach of contract. In September, the two sides settled out of court, with the town agreeing to pay Williams $30,000.

The Oct. 31 dismissals close the books on civil suits stemming from the pay-raise scandal, which came to light in the spring of 2011. The scandal cost three employees their jobs and taxpayers more than $200,000.

The Town Council fired Williams, Godwin resigned, and a third employee, a payroll clerk, retired. Town records show Godwin was among the employees who received raises when the council told Williams not to grant any.

Jack O’Hale, a Smithfield attorney representing Godwin, said he was glad to see a judge dismiss Williams’ defamation claim against his client. Because of the dismissal, Godwin won’t incur expenses related to that suit, he said.

“We’re pleased, because from the very beginning we felt that there was no merit to this lawsuit,” he said. “It was an attempt by Mr. Williams to (get) money from the town and my client.”

Councilman Emery Ashley said he was relieved that Smithfield taxpayers won’t have to cover Godwin’s legal bills.

“When we agreed to settle with Eric Williams, I voted against that settlement because it left pending these other issues,” he said. “I wanted full closure. Thankfully, the judge ruled in favor of the town and dismissed Ms. Godwin’s claim for attorney’s fees against the town.”

Ashley, a lawyer who was elected to the council after the scandal, has been conducting his own investigation into that pay-raise scandal.

Such an investigation, he hopes, will ensure that such a scandal never happens again.

“I think once we get the report out, make depositions available to the public if they want to read them, I think we’ve done all we can do and hopefully this can be behind us,” Ashley said. “This is the closure we’ve been looking for, waiting for and working for.”

Judge Claire V. Hill has ordered the unsealing of depositions by Godwin, Williams, then-finance director Justin Merritt and then-mayor Daniel Evans.

Jack Nichols, Williams’ attorney, said he was disappointed by the dismissal of the defamation complaint against Godwin. Williams, who is currently in Florida caring for his sick brother, has 30 days to decide whether to appeal, Nichols said.

“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Eric about whether he wants to appeal,” Nichols said. “He has 30 days to decide, but his brother’s real sick, and he’s down there visiting with him. When he gets back, we’re gonna meet and talk.”