City wants default ruling tossed

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Geri Sams heads the Procurement Department.

The city has asked the federal court to deny a default judgment on a lawsuit that alleges unfair practices by its purchasing department, contending Augusta's general counsel didn't know the deadline date to respond to the action.

 

In a sworn affidavit presented Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Augusta General Counsel Chiquita Johnson wrote that she didn't know the mayor had been served with the lawsuit on Feb. 14, giving the city until March 5 to respond and avoid being in default.

The city's answer wasn't filed until March 7.

However, according to Ms. Johnson and Mayor Deke Copenhaver's affidavits, she knew about the lawsuit shortly after it was filed. The city's former attorney Todd Boudreaux said a copy of the lawsuit was hand-delivered to Ms. Johnson on Feb. 14.

Ms. Johnson wrote in her affidavit that she spoke with Procurement Department Director Geri Sams about the lawsuit on Feb. 18. Ms. Johnson attended a closed legal session with city commissioners the next day when the lawsuit was discussed and she was instructed to prepare the city's defense.

The city and Ms. Sams had 20 days to file an answer after they were served with copies of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by the Association for Fair Government and three Augusta business owners who contend city contracts are unfairly awarded. It names Augusta and Ms. Sams as defendants.

Mr. Boudreaux said his firm, while serving as the city attorney, found the lawsuit immediately and gave Ms. Johnson a copy. He said his firm checked court dockets every day to look for any legal action against the city of Augusta.

They started that practice when a default judgment was granted against the city after then-interim Mayor Willie Mays neglected to forward a lawsuit to the city attorneys.

Ms. Johnson would have been reminded of the new lawsuit again when she was copied a Feb. 27 letter Mr. Boudreaux wrote to attorney Robert A. Mullins.

"The defense of Augusta, Georgia and Ms. Sams will be handled by Chiquita Johnson and the law department. By copy of this letter, I am forwarding your letter and attachments to Ms. Johnson for her completion," Mr. Boudreaux's letter reads.

When the deadline passed last week with no answer from the city, Mr. Mullins filed a motion requesting a default judgment.

In the city's motion opposing default judgment, its law department acknowledged the answer was filed two days late.

But default judgments are rarely granted and the benefit of doubt should weigh in favor of the city, according to the motion filed by the city's law department.

U.S. Magistrate Judge W. Leon Barfield, who is handling the pretrial matters in the case, has not ruled on the motions.

Also Wednesday, Mr. Mullins filed a second motion for default, this time against Ms. Sams in her official capacity. He contends the city failed to file an answer to those claims.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

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