As part of the motion, Robinson had testified in an affidavit that he did not make the “black corruption” statement that resulted in the slander lawsuit filed by Anniston resident Curtis Ray, who worked for the mayor during the election.
Howell questioned the veracity of Robinson’s affidavit, asking the attorney if his client’s own actions didn’t throw doubt on the statement. Robinson’s attorney, Taylor Stewart, argued that The Star did not produce substantial evidence confirming Robinson made the remark.
“He runs a full-page ad retraction. Then he meets with some people where he apologizes for making a statement similar to that,” Howell said. “Isn’t that substantial evidence?”
The mayor was quoted in The Anniston Star on Aug. 28, 2008, two days after the election, talking about his victory at the polls.
“I bought into the black corruption in Anniston. And it worked,” the article quoted Robinson as saying the day after the election.
He had told The Star that he had paid Curtis Ray and Anniston school board member William Hutchings to pass out marked sample ballots and to assist people to the door on Election Day.
A month later, Robinson met with ministers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and admitted making the statement but said it had been misunderstood. He apologized to the ministers and promised to take out a full-page advertisement in The Star apologizing for the comment, which he later did.
In response to Howell’s question, Stewart changed his tack.
“We’re really not denying he said corruption in a sense,” Stewart said. “He was talking about 2004, not about Ray and the context in which she (former Star reporter Megan Nichols) wrote it, she pieced it together, is what he’s trying to say.”
Putting aside the question of whether the mayor made the remark, Howell asked the attorneys to present their evidence of whether the statement itself is slander.
Curtis Ray’s attorney, Gene Rutledge, said it was. Since Ray had worked for Robinson during the election, the comment could reflect on Ray.
“The charge by the mayor was setting and obtaining votes in a corrupt manner,” Rutledge argued.
However, Stewart argued that the mayor was referring to what he had been told was corruption in the 2004 election. If Robinson had been referring to hiring Ray and Hutchings, he would be admitting that he, himself, had done something wrong.
“Why would he want to indict himself?” Stewart asked.
The attorneys also argued under what rules the lawsuit should be considered. Under state law, anyone can file a lawsuit for slander, but if a public figure is filing, that person would have to provide additional evidence that there was a reckless disregard for the truth in the slanderous comments. Stewart argued that Ray was a public figure and therefore should have to prove the mayor knew his statement was false when he made it.
“The plaintiff here (Ray) put himself out in public forums as the person to call to get the vote out in a legal way,” Stewart said.
Rutledge argued that Ray was not a public figure. He took a job with a candidate to do something legal.
“As I understand Mr. Stewart’s intention, anybody that works in and around a political campaign would be a limited purpose public figure,” Rutledge said.
Howell said he would try to render a decision by next Friday as to whether a summary judgment is warranted. If he does not find in favor of Robinson, the case is scheduled to be argued in front of a jury on Feb. 14.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.