Former W.Va. candidate files suit against Herald-Mail

May 08, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - An unsuccessful candidate for the Berkeley County Commission has sued The Herald-Mail Co., alleging the newspaper published a libelous story last year about his stance on zoning in the county, according to Berkeley County Circuit Court records.

In the story, The Herald-Mail Co. wrote that Republican John E. Wright opposed zoning, but that Wright signed an order hiring a consulting firm to draft the regulation, according to the suit filed Thursday.

The story published May 7, 1996, said Wright signed the order when he was a commissioner in 1988, according to the suit.


Wright in the suit alleged the statement was inaccurate.

Although he gave The Herald-Mail an opportunity to find the courthouse records that showed Wright's signature on an order hiring a consulting firm to draft a zoning ordinance, The Herald-Mail Co. produced copies of purchase orders that were initialed by Wright, the suit alleged. Those papers were not orders signed to hire a consulting firm to draft a zoning ordinance, the suit claims.

The purchase orders were for bills that the Planning Commission had submitted for payment, the suit said. The firm that drafted the zoning ordinance for Berkeley County was hired by the Planning Commission, not by the Berkeley County Commission, the suit said.

"The Berkeley County Planning Commission is allotted a budget annually, and the three Berkeley County Commissioners approve invoices for payment when submitted to them from the planning commission," the suit said.

"Based on what I know about the claim, it is without merit and we will vigorously defend our story," said Gloria George, executive editor of The Herald-Mail.

Also listed as a defendant in the suit is Richard F. Belisle, The Herald-Mail reporter who wrote the story.

Wright is asking for loss of income as a county commissioner, attorney fees and court costs and punitive damages, although no exact figures were listed in the suit.

Zoning, which involves designating certain areas of the county for development, has been a controversial issue in Berkeley County. Voters soundly defeated a proposal to allow zoning last May following a vigorous anti-zoning campaign.

In the same election, Wright, who also is a local minister, lost the Republican primary race for an open seat on the commission.

The idea behind zoning is to provide orderly growth for the county, and protect property owners from any development that might devaluate their property. Opponents said the county's subdivision regulations are strict enough to control growth.

Wright claims in his suit that after The Herald-Mail article was published, he lost membership at his parish, the Inwood United Methodist Church. Wright also claims that he and his wife Fay have suffered from shame and contempt, particularly from members of their congregation, the suit said.

In the suit, Wright also claims he and Belisle had several unpleasant encounters while Wright was a commissioner. Belisle often tried to discredit Wright by trying to find some inconsistencies in Wright's positions that would make Wright look dishonest, the suit alleges.

Belisle once struck Wright on the left shoulder during a press conference, and Belisle often spoke to Wright in vulgar and insulting language in commission meetings, the suit alleges.

Wright could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Amanda L. Lewis, declined to comment.

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