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Councilmember Conaway Drops Lawsuit Over Coverage Questioning Her City Residency

August 1, 2011
By

Adam Meister

City Councilmember Belinda Conaway (D-7th District) today dismissed a lawsuit she filed against the Examiner newspapers, owner Philip Anschutz, and Baltimore blogger Adam Meister. The suit, filed in May, accused them of libel, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotion distress after an online column by Meister, published in March, pointed out public records indicating that Conaway receives a homestead-tax credit in Baltimore County because she claims as her principal residence a Randallstown home she co-owns with her husband. The lawsuit asked for $21 million in damages.

The request for dismissal was tendered by Conaway’s lawyer, Thomas J. Maronick, Jr., during a hearing before Baltimore City Circuit Court judge John Philip Miller. The hearing had been scheduled to argue a defense motion that the case be dismissed as a SLAPP suit, which stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” but was cut short with the plaintiff’s dismissal request. Conaway, who was accompanied by her father, Baltimore City Circuit Court Clerk and mayoral candidate Frank Conaway (D), did not take questions after the noon hearing. Her lawyer, Thomas Maronick, Jr., announced to reporters that “I’ll be taking questions, the Conaways will not.”

In the hallway outside the courtroom, Maronick explained that “one of the duties that I have as a lawyer is to file suits in good faith,” saying he did so in this case, but that he had not seen the documents Meister had posted with the column until “very recently, not more than a few weeks, maybe a month.” Though the documents–which include a Conaway-signed affidavit swearing that the Randallstown home is her “principal residence”–were available online with the column that prompted the suit, Maronick said, “I’ve seen lot of things get doctored.” He said Conaway “lives in the city” and that correcting public records showing otherwise is “in process.”

Meister’s attorney, Alex Hortis, told reporters that Conaway, like all American politicians who’ve sworn an oath of office, have a “duty to uphold the [U.S.] Constitution,” but “this lawsuit undermined the First Amendment, so I think that that’s appalling.” He said the outcome “sends a message to politicians” that they should “resolve public disputes in the public arena, and not a courtroom.” If the suit had gone forward, Hortis said it “would have chilled free speech” and caused “self-censorship” among reporters. He also called for “stronger anti-SLAPP legislation by the [Maryland] General Assembly.”

Meister, speaking loudly and excitedly, said the lawsuit “has been a big joke” and that Conaway was “cold-hearted and mean” in bringing it. He emphasized the price he’d paid while the suit was pending: silence about Conaway. “I haven’t been able to talk, haven’t been able to express myself,” he said. With the lawsuit over, he spoke at length–alternately off-the-cuff and from a prepared statement–thanking Conaway for suing him, because “if not for this frivolous lawsuit, she would have had zero primary opponents” in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary election, “and nobody would have known about her house in Randallstown.”

Meister, who lives in Reservoir Hill, which thanks to this year’s redistricting is now in Conaway’s district, urged voters “to vote for Nick Mosby” over Conaway in the Sept. 13 primary. “And if you don’t live in the 7th District,” he added, “donate larges sums of money to Nick Mosby’s campaign.” When Meister ran unsuccessfully for the City Council’s 11th District seat in 2007, Mosby was one of his opponents.

Meister also called on the City Council to “investigate” the issue of Conaway’s residency, saying “she chairs the Budget and Appropriations Committee” yet “she received the homestead-tax credit in Randallstown” in Baltimore County. “This is shameful,” he said.

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