LAWRENCEVILLE — An attorney representing the former leader of Gwinnett County government in a federal suit against Sheriff Butch Conway and two deputies hopes the action will bring millions in damages.
The 40-page suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, sues Conway and two deputies working under him who arrested then-Gwinnett County Commission Chairman Charles Bannister in June 2010 on DUI charges, which were later dropped.
Constitutional rights protecting Bannister against illegal search and seizure, and granting him the right to voice opposition to Conway in past political arenas, were violated, entitling him to whatever damages a federal jury will deem fit, the suit claims.
Bannister’s attorney, David Walbert, said Tuesday he’s hopeful that damages will exceed a $1.7 million settlement Bannister demanded from the county in a pre-litigation notice filed in Gwinnett last year. A county attorney denied that settlement after reviewing claims that Conway, motivated by a longstanding vendetta, abused his power to have Bannister arrested.
Bannister’s push for a settlement in local courts ended there.
With the federal suit, “a fair number would be something very, very large under these circumstances,” said Walbert. “Jurors of every stripe ... are very offended at the misuse of government power like this.”
Walbert said the case will ideally be tried in federal court some time in 2013.
Throughout the ordeal, Conway denied that he and Bannister were political adversaries. He called the arrest and baseless charges more a product of poor judgment than animosity.
Conway was out of the office Tuesday but provided a statement via a department spokesperson.
“I stand by the apology I issued to Bannister and his family,” said Conway. “Mistakes were made in this case, but they were not intentional.”
The suit claims the root of Conway’s vitriol, and that of other influential Gwinnett figures, was Bannister’s reluctance to be swayed by favors or unscrupulous financial gain when he took office in 2004.
Conway, the suit claims, developed an “intense hostility” for the chairman as Bannister voiced opposition to budgetary requests on issues such as overtime pay for deputies. Bannister also made inquiries into the workplace habits of Conway’s wife, Gwinnett State Court Judge Carla Brown, who he suspected of abusing public funds by “rarely” showing up for her full-time judgeship; her absences forced magistrate judges to cover for her, the suit claims.
When Bannister requested records showing when Brown’s access card was used to enter and exit the courthouse, it not only infuriated the judge and Conway, but spurred the sheriff to change the access card system so that no records could be kept, the suit claims.
A message left Tuesday at Brown’s office was not returned.
The suit alleges Conway tried to “catch” Bannister and arrest him on “trumped-up” charges when he left Cafe Hot Wing, a Lilburn restaurant Bannister frequented for “conversation, food and an occasional beer.” Under Conway’s direction, Sheriff’s deputies asked restaurant staff to notify them when Bannister was there, and they once pulled a receipt to see if he’d been drinking, the suit states.
On the evening of Bannister’s June 2010 arrest, Conway “dispatched” the deputies to the restaurant, then communicated via 28 cell-phone calls to avoid creating an official record while arresting Bannister on DUI charges. Bannister had met two colleagues and consumed “a small amount of beer that night” with food, but was not under the influence when he left in a county-issued vehicle, the suit claims.
The deputies erred in asking Bannister, then age 71, to perform physical tests such as a one-legged stand and using them as a basis for his intoxication, the suit states. Two breath tests showed Bannister had no alcohol in his system, as did a later blood test.
As a result of the arrest and subsequent media coverage, Bannister suffered “extreme humiliation, embarrassment and anguish,” the suit states.
The arrest came months before Bannister suddenly resigned to avoid a perjury charge as a special grand jury was investigating controversial land deals conducted under his watch.
Bannister has largely avoided public spotlight since vacating his post. His confidants told the Daily Post last year the Lilburn resident has found a peace in retirement. He renovated his wife’s childhood home and savors time spent with his grandchildren.