Government critic Skip Hoagland has filed a lawsuit seeking $10 million from the Town of Hilton Head Island over claims the town is illegally funding a private lawsuit against him.
The lawsuit contends the town’s payments of attorney fees in an ongoing, private defamation lawsuit brought by Town Council member Kim Likins against Hoagland violate his free-speech rights. The suit was filed Thursday in Beaufort County Circuit Court.
“The Defendants are using the Town’s unlimited taxpayer funded resources to sue a private citizen and bankrupt him with attorney fees,” the suit states, contending the “ulterior purpose” of Likins’ suit is to “deprive the Plaintiff of protected speech under the First Amendment and to punish the Plaintiff for the past exercise of such rights at public town council meetings.”
As of Monday, the town has paid a total of $139,724 to two law firms representing Likins — Alford & Thoreson Law Firm of Hilton Head and Pratt-Thomas Walker of Charleston, town records show.
Likins’ lawsuit, filed against Hoagland in December 2015, contends that Hoagland made statements to her bosses that she was unfit to serve in her job as director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head Island. According to her suit, Hoagland made that allegation following her vote in favor of a contract with the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce — a contract Hoagland has publicly criticized.
Contacted Monday, Hoagland, who has been a frequent and vocal critic of the chamber, Hilton Head and Bluffton town council members, and others, told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette that “it is time to stop the abuse of citizens.”
“There is no justification for Kim Likins, a council person, to use taxpayer dollars for her private lawsuit,” he said.
Likins told the newspapers Monday she was unable to comment on her ongoing suit. Likins is not listed in Hoagland’s suit; she recused herself from a Town Council vote in December 2015 that gave the town the ability to cover legal costs for council members’ private lawsuits.
Hoagland’s suit names the town; Town Council members, including Mayor David Bennett; town manager Steve Riley; and town attorney Brian Hulbert as defendants. Current council member David Ames is not listed in the suit. He was not on council at the time of the December 2015 vote, though former council member Lee Edwards, who is named in the suit, was on council then.
Riley said Monday he had been served with Hoagland’s suit, though he added he couldn’t comment on it. But he recently discussed Likins’ suit with the newspapers.
“This (Likins’) lawsuit is about an individual’s back-door effort to influence a council member by threatening their job,” Riley said then. “This was behind the scenes and out of public view and a use of financial coercion.”
There also was a fear the town could have trouble recruiting qualified Town Council members in the future if it didn’t legally protect Likins and others, Riley said. He noted that any damages awarded to Likins in her suit would first be used to cover legal costs paid by the town, with any remaining amount going to her.
Hoagland’s suit, among other things, contends the defendants violated a state criminal law dealing with official misconduct and another more-obscure criminal statute by “stirring up baseless litigation against the Plaintiff” and by “paying for it, as well.”
Besides $10 million in damages, the suit also seeks attorney fees and “other and further relief including injunctive relief as this court sees fit to award him (Hoagland).” Hoagland is represented in the suit by Hilton Head attorney Russ Keep III.