Pantego Creek manager files lawsuit against mayor

Published 12:39 am Saturday, November 19, 2016

BELHAVEN — There is a defamation lawsuit brewing against Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal.

Brantley Tillman, one of four managers of Pantego Creek LLC, which owns the old hospital property, filed a lawsuit in Beaufort County Superior Court in September, alleging claims of libel per se, libel per quod and abuse of public office, and requesting general and punitive damages.

O’Neal mentioned the lawsuit at Monday night’s Board of Aldermen meeting.

There are four factors in proving a defamation suit: the plaintiff (in this case, Tillman) must prove the false statements were made; the plaintiff must prove the statement was published by an unprivileged, third party; the plaintiff must prove the publisher was negligent; and the plaintiff may need to prove damages in some cases.

According to a legal document, Tillman lists various letters sent out via utility bills to Belhaven residents as evidence, as well as a Facebook post.

In one of the letters, dated Feb. 25, O’Neal wrote, “The property is currently controlled by the 4 remaining managers of Pantego Creek L.L.C. The managers are Deb Sparrow, Brantley Tillman, Darren Armstrong and Lynn Ross. … Everyone needs to know the defiance of these 4 individuals is delaying the reopening of the hospital for all of us.”

In a July 26 letter, O’Neal wrote, “Some people have asked why use the 4 L.L.C. managers’ names in public? The reason is that they are part of a public issue. These 4 individuals are taking direct actions to deprive our area of an emergency room, hospital, and care for our veterans. They are also killing an estimated 100 high-paying quality jobs in Belhaven. The 4 people are in process of destroying our town and area.”

Pantego Creek LLC and the Town of Belhaven have been in conflict for years, following Vidant Health’s closing of Vidant Pungo Hospital in July 2014. The town has sought to obtain the property through eminent domain claims, and most recently, through a $500,000 offer to buy the property, presented Friday, as it wants to reopen the hospital facility.

In each claim, the legal document states that Tillman is entitled to $10,000 or more in damages, and that O’Neal’s statements were meant to hurt Tillman’s reputation and did so.

Tillman’s lawsuit also argues that O’Neal misused public funds in mailing the letters in residents’ utility bills.

O’Neal, however, denies any wrongdoing.

“I have said nothing false about Mr. Tillman, and all my actions have been based on protecting my town as Mayor. This is just the latest harassment I have had to endure while working to save our people’s hospital,” O’Neal said.

Tillman’s legal representation did not respond to requests for comment.