Campaign-sign showdown nears in Grant

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2012 - 6:45 PM

An attorney defending a City Council member in rural Grant is trying to end the costly case, on the grounds the suit is frivolous.

A lawsuit that has swept 12 attorneys, four judges and numerous residents of a small Washington County city into a costly dispute over two campaign signs is headed for a May showdown.

"This has turned into a war and it shouldn't ever, ever have come to the light of day," said attorney Robert Hill, who represents Stephen Bohnen, a first-term member of the Grant City Council.

In an attempt to end the case -- which has produced a stack of documents 2 feet high -- Hill will try to persuade a Wright County judge that it's "comprised solely of frivolous claims lacking any basis in fact or law."

'Blizzard of paper'

The case also has raised First Amendment questions and, in Hill's estimation, could invite similar suits against state political candidates.

The suit against Bohnen, Hill said, amounts to intimidating a citizen seeking election who did what all candidates do these days -- post campaign signs to attract voters' attention.

"This is not only lawful conduct, but we can't have a free democratic society without it," Hill said Friday. "It's basically a blizzard of paper that's been filed in this case."

Bohnen is being sued by Grant resident Jeffrey L. Nielsen in a dispute that began in October 2010 when Nielsen removed two signs that he said Bohnen had improperly placed in Grant, a rural city of about 4,100 residents just west of Stillwater. Nielsen also is suing Keith Mueller, who witnessed Nielsen driving with the signs on top of his car.

Nielsen didn't respond to an interview request, but in court documents, he said he's only interested in seeing laws governing the placement of campaign signs enforced. He has alleged that Bohnen and Mueller "conspired together and both have improperly concocted untrue and inaccurate stories" to retaliate against him for removing the signs and for Mueller's "aggressive actions" against him. Nielsen also is suing Washington County.

The suit will rise to an attorney vs. attorney confrontation May 11 in Wright County District Court when Hill and attorneys for Mueller seek sanctions against Nielsen's attorneys for pursuing a "frivolous" suit. Sanctions, if Judge Stephen Halsey imposes them, would require Nielsen's attorneys to pay the opposing attorneys' legal fees, now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

'Should be deemed frivolous'

"Our professional obligations as lawyers require that we refrain from clogging the courts with frivolous lawsuits simply because our clients have the money to pay for a hired gun," said Hill, of Stillwater.

One of Nielsen's attorneys, Tom Pahl of Minneapolis, said Friday that "one judge has already ruled that Mr. Nielsen stated viable and legally correct claims against the defendants. Therefore, their attorneys' claims for sanctions are what should be deemed frivolous."

Hill said the case falls into a legal trend known as SLAPP, meaning Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participants, that's now in full swing on the national political landscape.

"The targets are typically not extremists or experienced activists, but normal middle-class and blue-collar Americans, many on their first venture into the world of government decisionmaking," wrote George Pring, a Denver law professor who tracks court actions against public officials.

Bohnen, a car salesman who earns $3,200 a year as a City Council member, said the suit has hurt his bank account and his family life. "The publicity of this lawsuit has damaged both my private and professional reputation," he said in an affidavit.

In a separate affidavit, Catherine Bohnen said her husband can't concentrate on anything but legal matters. "We can barely discuss our finances and bills without it becoming a big fight."

Nielsen has alleged that "Bohnen's continued public proclamations" disturbed the Nielsen family's "quiet use and enjoyment" of their property and diminished its value. Nielsen said he was "forced" to bring the suit because Bohnen "has now implicated neighbors, landowners, Mueller, Washington County, and the city of Grant."

Nielsen has initiated several lawsuits in recent years including a defamation case against a former Roseville mayor that the state appeals court struck down in 2001.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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