Mar 212015
 

I’ve written that Joe Harn is a bully. I’ve written about his temper and abusive pattern. Now he is suing a political opponent. Credit: Placerville Newswire

In an inexplicable move, Auditor/Controller Joe Harn initiates a lawsuit that is nearly impossible to win and one that calls his own actions into question.
On March 18th Courthouse News Service Reported “Small-Town NorCal Election Gets Nasty” by Barbara Wallace. The story reports on a lawsuit filed by Auditor/Controller Joe Harn related to campaign charges that he is a  a “sexual predator” and a “sociopath.”  The lawsuit is Joe Harn suing Chris McCaffree for comments he made in an email during Harn’s last campaign.  The original story wrote that neither Harn or McCaffree were available for comment.  We contacted McCaffree and he was unaware of the lawsuit and added that he had not been contacted by Harn, Harn’s legal representatives, or the Courthouse News Service.
Chris McCaffree has been a fixture in the community for many years and was most notable during a public investigation of a “Hostile Workplace” for El Dorado County employees where Joe Harn was a central figure of the investigation.  Chris McCaffree’s public testimony was given to the Board of Supervisors about two years ago. [http://eldorado.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=329 At bottom you can slide video to 00:27:50, 01:19:43 and 03:04:17 for relevant testimony from Chris]
McCaffree, a CPA, past Scout Master and father of five sons, is considered by most people who know him as almost “too nice”.  McCaffree has lived in El Dorado County for over 15 years and has enjoyed living here among good people – for the most part.  According to McCaffree, when he went to work for El Dorado County, he discovered that Joe Harn was making a complete mockery of what should be “Civil Servant’s” position of Auditor-Controller.
In McCaffree’s response to the lawsuit by Audtor-Controller, Joe Harn, defendant Chris McCaffre indicated that, “It is unfortunate that Joe Harn has brought this lawsuit against me.  I am normally a very nice guy, and it pains me to make Joe Harn a very public example of humiliation and disgrace in open view of all El Dorado County citizens who will follow this case.”
“The best defense to a Libel law suit is the truth – which will be made known very clearly now through the investigation and testimony of witnesses in this case.” explained McCaffree.
McCaffree insists that he believes what he wrote to be the truth and that he looks forward to proving that in court.  McCaffree says his only reluctance in addressing this lawsuit is due to the large number of people involved – “some will feel bad that they did not get a chance to give their testimonies against Joe Harn,” he said.
In addition to McCaffree’s own testimony, Mike Applegarth also testified about Joe Harn and gave supporting testimony to McCaffree’s claims. Applegarth was a highly placed analysit for the county that came forward to expose Joe Harn.  He did so on moral grounds and is widely known as an extremely ethical and moral man.  He has left the county since then and was immediately snapped up by another a city in Utah as their new top leader. [ http://eldorado.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=402 Move slider to 1:49:20 into the video]
In that public testimony a most unflattering picture is painted of entrenched political incumbent Joseph Harn as the primary “Bully” of the county and even the County Counsel testified that he was beyond the reach of most “Personnel” laws.
Harn’s lawsuit invites the public to come forward to testify for or against the behavior of Joe Harn as Chris McCaffree vows to include those that, “did not get a chance to give their testimonies against Joe Harn” at the County hearing, will in his response to Harn’s lawsuit.
Not only will the self-initiated Harn lawsuit put his own character in the spotlight, it is nearly impossible to win.
Proving Fault: Actual Malice and not just Negligence

Under U.S. law a plaintiff must prove that the defendant was at fault when he published the defamatory statement. In this case, Harn will need to prove that the defendant acted with actual malice not just negligence, because Joe Harn is a public official.
Celebrities, politicians, high-ranking or powerful government officials, and others with power in society are generally considered public figures/officials and are required to prove actual malice. Unlike these well-known and powerful individuals, your shy neighbor is likely to be a private figure who is only required to prove negligence if McCaffree published something defamatory about her.
Actual Malice:
In a legal sense, “actual malice” has nothing to do with ill will or disliking someone and wishing him harm. Rather, courts have defined “actual malice” in the defamation context as publishing a statement while either:
knowing that it is false;or acting with reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or falsity.
It should be noted that the actual malice standard focuses on the defendant’s actual state of mind at the time of publication. Unlike the negligence standard, the actual malice standard is not measured by what a reasonable person would have published or investigated prior to publication. Instead, the plaintiff must produce clear and convincing evidence that the defendant actually knew the information was false or entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication.
In making this determination, a court will look for evidence of the defendant’s state of mind at the time of publication and will likely examine the steps he took in researching, editing, and fact checking his work. It is generally not sufficient, however, for a plaintiff to merely show that the defendant didn’t like him, failed to contact her for comment, knew he had denied the information, relied on a single biased source, or failed to correct the statement after publication.
Not surprisingly, this is a very difficult standard for a plaintiff to establish. Indeed, in only a handful of cases over the last decades have plaintiffs been successful in establishing the requisite actual malice to prove defamation.
The actual malice standard applies when a defamatory statement concerns three general categories of individuals: public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures.
Public Officials
The “public officials” category includes politicians and high-ranking governmental figures, but also extends to government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs. Courts have interpreted these criteria broadly, extending the public figure classification to civil servants far down the government hierarchy.
In general, if an individual is classified as a public official, defamatory statements relating to any aspects of their lives must meet the actual malice standard of fault for there to be liability. Moreover, even after passage of time or leaving office, public officials must still meet the actual malice standard because the public has a continued interest in the misdeeds of its leaders.
The actual malice standard extends to statements touching on virtually any aspect of the public official’s life.
This untenable case may prove to be the undoing of Joe Harn as he already stands in public distrust after he enjoyed a very significant raise and bonus while he fights against the requested Cost of Living increases for county employees.  Will a public court case of his behavior, including witnesses testifying under oath, paint a picture of a man the voters simply cannot support for another term.  Will this testimony lead to a recall campaign against this old pol?
Time will determine that and we will keep you informed of developments.

Cris Alarcon.

(Disclosure, Cris Alarcon did participate in the campaign of Mike Owen, the most recent challenger to Joe Harn for the Office of Auditor/Controller in El Dorado County.  Unrelated, but concurrent to that campaign, in the course of a County Investigation of a Hostile Workplace, Chris McCaffree made the statements that Joe Harn is objecting to in this lawsuit)

 

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