Another chapter was notched in the ongoing saga surrounding Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Farmer, as attorneys for Franklin County's five public defenders late Wednesday filed a motion to dismiss Farmer’s defamation lawsuit against them.
Farmer’s complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Kentucky by northern Kentucky attorney Chris Wiest and three other attorneys, constituted the beginning of a defamation lawsuit against all of the public defenders seeking damages exceeding $1 million.
The public defenders, represented by Dinsmore law firm, provided additional text messages from an exchange previously quoted in Farmer’s complaint. The texts show that an officer in contact with public defender Kristin Gonzalez was critical of Farmer’s police conduct.
Their motion to dismiss the suit also claims that Farmer failed to properly identify instances in which the public defenders defamed him. They also argue that just as Farmer had a constitutional right to attend a pro-Trump rally — which preceded a Jan. 6 mob siege of the U.S. Capitol — they are allowed to criticize his decision to attend.
“In America, citizens have the right to express their views about Farmer’s choices,” the motion reads. “Farmer’s claim that he had a right to associate with the events of Jan. 6, 2021, but that the First Amendment does not also permit public comment on his choices, should be rejected by this Court.”
Wiest told The State Journal on Thursday that his team plans to file a response with Judge Karen Caldwell and that he believes the motion to dismiss should be rejected.
Farmer was for more than a month reassigned to desk duty while an investigator hired by Franklin County Sheriff Chris Quire reviewed allegations made by the public defenders in a letter to Quire.
The investigator, ex-FBI agent Carl Christiansen, released a report that Quire made public and said “cleared” Farmer of major wrongdoing, particularly the allegations contained in the letter. Quire since sent a letter to Farmer critical of his use of social media and put him back on the street working general investigations.
A former police chief and policing policy expert recently told The State Journal that Christiansen’s report wasn’t adequate and that someone should have contacted two people who spoke with The State Journal about their allegedly traumatic experiences while being arrested by Farmer. Christiansen also did not include in his report anyone quoted anonymously in an NBC News report about Farmer.
The text exchange
The public defenders' motion to dismiss the defamation suit includes what is allegedly a full text message exchange between public defender Kristin Gonzalez and Frankfort Police Officer Billy Graves. An excerpt of that exchange was first shared by Wiest in the initial complaint filed on Farmer’s behalf to assert that Gonzalez had a motive to defame Farmer.
Released as an exhibit in the public defenders’ response, the full exchange includes an instance of Graves saying that all cops were appalled by the defenders’ letter but that “all cops in Franklin (County) also know how shady Jeff (Farmer) can be,” and that the Frankfort Police Department works with the Sheriff’s Office on an “as needed basis” because of problems hinted at in the public defenders’ letter.
In a response to the State Journal, Graves declined to take questions but said that he did not intend for his messages with Gonzalez — who he said continues to be a "very good friend" of his — to have such an impact.
"I have worked very hard to build a reputable reputation within Frankfort and Franklin County," Graves said. "A conversation with a close friend has caused damage to us both... I have meant no harm to anyone."
Gonzalez has not spoken to The State Journal on the record, instead referring a reporter to her attorney for comment.
The full exchange shows that the conversation was initiated by Graves shortly after the public defenders put their letter to Quire on social media and gave copies to news outlets. The letter criticized Farmer’s attendance at the Trump rally in D.C. and his police conduct.
In his text, Graves asks Gonzalez for a “real and honest and off the record conversation” about the letter. He said he agreed with some aspects of the letter but raised concerns about cops not being allowed to “be themselves” as regular citizens would.
“I somewhat agree with yours and your coworkers’ stance and frustration on the issue,” Graves wrote. “... Are cops not allowed to be citizens at times and just be able to be themselves like everyone else?”
Gonzalez responded that she, Graves and Farmer were public figures and needed to uphold a “higher standard.” She added that she wouldn’t have thrown her support behind a similar letter if Graves were in a situation akin to Farmer’s attendance in D.C.
Graves said that he wasn’t defending Farmer and acknowledged that Farmer had “done a lot of dumb s---,” including conduct related to the complaints raised in the public defenders’ letter. But he suggested that the public defenders might do well to release a follow-up to their letter because of a negative response from law enforcement.
“All cops in Franklin County are pretty appalled by it (the letter),” Graves wrote. “All cops in Franklin (County) also know how shady Jeff (Farmer) can be, so no one is arguing that.”
Farmer’s initial complaint highlighted a segment near the end of Gonzalez’s conversation with Graves in which she wrote that she made it her “mission to screw with Farmer” as well as former Sheriff Pat Melton and former Deputy Rick Qualls.
It is unclear how those messages, apparent screenshots from Graves’ phone, first made their way to Wiest or who released them.
Wiest linked that statement to a 2014 drug charge against William “Brad” McGaughey, Gonzalez’s husband.
In 2016, McGaughey was sentenced to 12 months' probation for criminal attempt to possess a controlled substance, possession of marijuana and paraphernalia charges. McGaughey is a former Franklin Circuit Court deputy clerk and was accused of having sent internal police documents to a drug dealer, per a State Journal report from 2014.
The official reports connected to McGaughey’s arrest obtained via an open records request do not include Farmer’s name, mostly referring to Qualls and Melton, but Quire confirmed later that Farmer was involved in the case.
“The case in question involved numerous people but was led by then-narcotics detective Qualls,” Quire said. “Farmer assisted with identifying people before and after the search warrant in question but didn’t directly investigate Gonzalez or McGaughey.”
Quire, who worked at FPD before his election as sheriff in 2018, also disputed that the sheriff’s office and FPD have a strained relationship. He said that the two offices used to have a strained relationship before he replaced Melton.
“When I came over, I kind of changed that, because I'd worked with the city for 18 years so I had a good relationship with them,” Quire said. “But yeah, once upon a time there were a lot of issues. When Rick Qualls and (former deputy) Matt Brown were here, there were a lot of different problems. But I don't think that's the case today, or even, you know, last year.”
Quire also said that Farmer has recently had a “great working relationship” with FPD working as a team. He even added that city and county narcotics units held a weekly lunch before the COVID-19 pandemic.
When contacted on Thursday, FPD Chief Charles Adams agreed with Quire’s characterization, acknowledging past friction between the departments but saying the relationship had mended in recent years.
Adams also said that he had just recently heard about Graves' messages with Gonzalez and has yet to speak with Graves about them.
The legal argument
The public defenders’ legal team at Dinsmore argues that what the defenders said about Farmer was not defamatory and that Farmer's complaint did not adequately make a case that it was.
The motion also stated that law enforcement officers have been deemed “public officials” by courts around the country and that as such the burden of proof for defamation is higher.
“Farmer must establish by clear and convincing proof that the Letter contains a false statement of fact that was made with actual malice. Farmer cannot meet this standard,” the motion reads. “... (The) plaintiff fails to state a defamation claim for which relief can be granted because he does not identify any provably false defamatory language about the Plaintiff and cannot establish constitutional actual malice.”
The motion also maintained that the wording of statements made in the public defenders’ letter protected their words from being accurately characterized as defamatory.
While the complaint paints the statements as declaring what Farmer’s actions were in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the motion points to the public defenders’ choice to phrase certain portions of their letter as questions or as not having any evidence that disproves Farmer committed a certain action.
The response also disputes the legal grounds for Farmer filing a “Section 1983 First Amendment Retaliation Claim” against the public defenders because they were not acting “under color of state law” as such claims require. The attorneys also argued that the public defenders are entitled to qualified immunity as a result of their employment as “government officials."
The motion also states that the public defenders' statements are defended by the court’s conception of free speech protected by the First Amendment — much like, it argues, Farmer’s protected right to attend a protest or rally — and that there is no evidence that their claims limited his free speech.
Farmer’s complaint alleged serious backlash that both he and his family have received as a result of the public defenders’ letter.
The motion closed asking the judge to dismiss Farmer’s complaint, noting that both state and federal courts "have recognized the importance in resolving claims that implicate free speech as early as practicable ‘to avoid the chilling effect on free speech that defamation lawsuits create,’” the motion reads.
The public defenders also provided exhibits of cases that they believe reflect some level of racial bias or misconduct on Farmer’s part.
Those cases include two people who have spoken to The State Journal about their experiences, Antoine Andrews and Kyira Glover, but also others.
Quire pointed out that those were all ruled in Farmer’s favor.
“The four motions to suppress that are outlined in the response were all ruled in favor of Farmer’s investigations and Farmer won all the suppression hearings surrounding the motions to suppress,” Quire said.
When asked about whether or not he thought his firm's motion to dismiss would succeed, Kenyon Meyer, a partner at Dinsmore, expressed confidence.
"Our system of justice depends on social justice warriors like my clients, and thank God, in America, they have the freedom to speak about important public issues and powerful people like Detective Farmer," Meyer wrote. "I did my best to advocate for those principles in the motion I filed."
Wiest said that his response to the public defenders’ motion in federal court was initially due in early April but that he got the deadline extended to April 16.