MPA sues Franklin, Town, Tonya Page for defamation, civil conspiracy, more

Country Chronicle Publishing Company Sued for Negligence

In June, 2021, newly hired Ashley Hunter, owner and CEO of MPA Strategies, announced a $10K International Paper Company grant to the Town. Shown here are, from left: Councilmen Sloan Griffin, Donald Brock, Hunter, Eddie Baughman, Mayor Bryan Franklin and then-Councilman Larry Griffin. Less than a month later, council voted to terminate her contract with the Town. | Barbara Ball

BLYTHEWOOD – Blythewood leaders falsely alleged that the CEO of a local marketing firm had a romantic relationship with a sitting councilman in order to land a marketing contract with the town, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

The suit also accuses a Camden news organization of publishing false claims in multiple news stories.

Ashley Hunter, chief executive officer and owner of MPA Strategies, filed the suit Jan. 30 in Richland County Circuit Court.

Blythewood Mayor Bryan Franklin; Tonya F. Page, editor of the Country Chronicle; the Town of Blythewood; and Camden Media Company LLC which publishes the Country Chronicle, are listed in the suit as Defendants.

The suit alleges defamation, tortious interference with contract, civil conspiracy, and negligence by Blythewood Mayor Bryan Franklin and Country Chronicle Editor Tonya F. Page; defamation, breach of contract and negligence by the Town of Blythewood and negligence by Camden Media Company LLC.

“The basic premise of this lawsuit is that Defendants were party to an effort by the Mayor to suggest that Plaintiff obtained business not based on merit, but instead based on romantic involvement with a Town Councilman,” the suit states. The lawsuit goes on to deny any romantic involvement occurred.

“Suggesting that a woman’s success is not based on her merit, but is instead based on appearance, flirtation, or romantic involvement is wrong and regressive; especially where, as is the case here, the suggestions of romantic involvement are false,” the suit continues.

In an email response to The Voice on Tuesday morning, David Black, an attorney with Nexsen Pruet law firm, wrote, “the Town looks forward to vigorously defending itself against the baseless allegations made in the new MPA complaint.”

Michael Mischner, publisher of Camden Media Company, requested that The Voice provide a copy of the lawsuit to him before commenting.

“Can you email me something? I’m not aware of this at this point,” Mischner said. “Could you send it to me? It would be easier for me to take a look at it and then give me your contact information, and then I can follow up. But I have not seen it.”

As of Monday, Jan. 30, Hunter’s lawsuit was published to the Richland County Public Index, which the general public can access.

Hunter has requested a jury trial and is seeking unspecified damages as well as “reinstatement or front pay” and pre-judgment interest, according to the suit.

None of the defendants had filed responses to the suit as of press time. A deadline of Aug. 28 has been set for mediation.

Hunter’s lawsuit alludes to allegations listed in separate litigation, which states the Town of Blythewood violated the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by not producing records she requested in 2021.

Blythewood countersued, accusing Hunter and her business of misconduct. That suit is still pending.

Defamation claims

The recently filed defamation suit says Mayor Franklin began making comments alleging a relationship between Hunter and Councilman Donald Brock in January 2021, days after Hunter submitted an RFP (request for proposal) for her firm to handle the town’s marketing efforts.

“On Jan. 25, 2021, at a Town Council Meeting, Defendant Franklin implied that Plaintiff and Defendant Brock were in an inappropriate relationship saying sarcastically, “We don’t just call friends and write checks …I’ll defer to Councilman Brock because he clearly has a favorite,” according to the suit.

A few days later, “Franklin text messaged Councilman Brock, telling him he’d heard a rumor he was seen out drinking wine with Plaintiff which Brock directly denied as being false,” the suit states.

The suit alleges that on Feb. 1, 2021, “the Mayor of the Town of Blythewood, Defendant Franklin, called Plaintiff Ashley Hunter and apologized for ‘spreading a rumor’ that he alleged originated with a Town Employee he referred to as ‘Julie’.”

Franklin told several people that Hunter and Brock were ‘having an affair,’ and inferred it was why she got the marketing contract, according to the suit.

On Feb. 22, 2021, council voted 3-2 to award the marketing contract to MPA, the suit said. Franklin was one of the two dissenting votes.

Following the Feb. 22 meeting, a town attorney made comments to a reporter for The Voice about an alleged relationship between Hunter and Brock, the suit continues.

The suit states that the negotiations relating to the terms of the contract “were unnecessarily contentious and delayed by Defendant Franklin.”

“Plaintiff MPA Strategies, LLC submitted a Freedom of Information Request for communications and materials related to the RFP and Defendant Franklin’s communications with others about the RFP and Hunter,” the suit continues.

“Defendant Franklin signed a contract with MPA Strategies, LLC to do the marketing work bid on April 16, 2021,” the suit says.

Allegations of an affair continued into the spring and summer, the suit says.

 On May 6, 2021, “Defendant Franklin, in an email to Donald Brock, a political opponent of his, made further allegations about an inappropriate relationship between Plaintiff and Brock,” the suit states.

At the July 20, 2021 meeting, in open session, Defendant Franklin suggested that the town should terminate its contract with MPA Strategies in part because “MPA Strategies had engaged in reproachful conduct.”

Also on that date, the Town of Blythewood attempted to improperly terminate its contract with MPA Strategies, according to the suit.

On July 21, [correction: July, 22] 2021, Tonya Page published an article in the Country Chronicle summarizing a reading of Blythewood’s counterclaims and third-party claims in the FOIA lawsuit and stated the following: “Hunter has maintained a close personal relationship with certain council members since October or November, 2020, and she failed to disclose this relationship to the remaining Council Members or the Mayor.”

“The remarks by Franklin were knowingly false and made in reckless disregard for the truth,” the suit said. “The remarks by Franklin were made with malice based on his political feud with Brock, disappointment and bruised ego based on his preference for the Chamber of Commerce over MPA Strategies, not carrying the weight of counsel, and his retaliatory disdain for the Plaintiffs because Hunter took appropriate legal action to protect herself.”

Claims against Camden Media

As accusations of an affair persisted, a local newspaper owned by a Camden-based publishing company printed several stories that Hunter labeled in the litigation as “malicious” and “grossly negligent.”

Hunter’s lawsuit states the Country Chronicle published stories with detailed comments from Mayor Franklin and the town, but failed to seek comment from her or her marketing firm.

The suit accuses Tonya Page, editor of the Country Chronicle, of displaying favoritism toward the mayor in her news stories while simultaneously defaming Hunter’s business.

“Page has engaged in an ongoing practice of running comments by Franklin in her news articles without seeking or including comments of those she assails, including Plaintiff Hunter,” the suit states.

“Page has behaved as a mouthpiece for Franklin, publishing written and read remarks by Franklin at length and in their entirety.”

In September 2021, Camden Media Company was “put on notice of Page’s conduct.” The company “ratified” comments that had been published in a prior story.

Hunter’s lawsuit states that Page’s “conduct has continued unabated as a result causing further harm to the Plaintiff that was preventable.”

The suit says this has resulted in damages, which “include lost wages, lost earning capacity, reputational loss, lost good will, and pain and suffering.”

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