EATONTON - A judge denied a motion Wednesday to find an attorney representing Putnam County in contempt of court. The judge then ordered the man who brought the contempt motion to pay attorney's fees for the time spent on the hearing.
Wednesday's hearing underscored the contentious atmosphere that continues to exist between county officials and the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors.
Al Woodall, an agent for the nine property owners of the Nuwaubian village west of Eatonton, filed the motion for contempt after Frank Ford, an attorney for the county, refused to be deposed at a local Chinese restaurant. Depositions taken in Putnam County are normally done in the County Courthouse grand jury room. According to Ford, the grand jury room was available at the scheduled time of his deposition.
Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Hugh V. Wingfield III ordered Woodall to pay $200 in attorney's fees to Ford for the time he spent working on his response to the contempt-of-court motion.
"In 20 years (practicing law), I have never heard of a deposition being taken in a restaurant, particularly in a Chinese restaurant during lunch hour," Wingfield said, adding that he'd also never heard of opposing counsel being deposed. "In a bizarre case, this is the most bizarre thing I've heard."
Wingfield told Woodall the contempt motion was "utter nonsense." "Not only is Mr. Ford not in contempt, this is a complete waste of my time," Wingfield said.
Wingfield urged Woodall to hire an attorney, and then said he would take the "extraordinary" action of ordering all discovery by both sides suspended until an appeal in the case is concluded. Wingfield also said he would place restrictions on depositions once he allows them to resume.
"This is a zoning matter, and it should be over," Wingfield said. Ford testified Wednesday that he refused to be deposed at the Happy China restaurant because of the conditions and a crowd that had gathered at the restaurant when he showed up the morning of the deposition. The room where Woodall had set up for the deposition was not sealed from the rest of the restaurant, there was no air conditioning and the room was "stifling," and there was noise coming from the kitchen, Ford said.
"In fact, what (Woodall) had done was invited his buddies to come and watch him take my deposition," Ford said on the stand.
There were 50 to 60 Nuwaubians in and out of the restaurant when he showed up for his deposition, Ford said.
In recent months, Ford has twice been before Wingfield with motions of contempt of court filed against him. In April, Woodall attempted to have an arrest warrant issued for Ford. Both contempt motions have been denied.
After a hearing in April, Magistrate Judge Ellen Rudder Pierce refused to issue the arrest warrant. The latest legal wrangling stems from a zoning lawsuit.
Last June, under court order, the county padlocked several buildings - built without building permits - on Nuwaubian property. Most, if not all, of those padlocks have been removed by the county, and the Nuwaubians are working to bring those buildings into compliance with county building ordinances, according to county building inspector J.D. "Dizzy" Adams.
The Nuwaubians have filed suit seeking to force the county to let them open the Rameses social club. Nuwaubians say they want to use the club as a hunting lodge. County officials contend it was built under a building permit for a storage shed but used as a nightclub. That building was padlocked under a separate court order.
The only issue that remains unresolved in the suit brought by the county a year and a half ago is whether or not the county can seek monetary damages from the Nuwaubians, according to Ford.