Injunction upheald in county tax records case

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The eastern district courthouse in Piggott was the site of a hearing Friday, Aug. 8, on the merits of a temporary injunction that was granted July 25 by Judge David Laser. The injunction had been sought, and gained, by Van Winton of Clay County Abstract of Piggott against sheriff and collector Ronnie Cole. Winton had sought the injunction after he was denied access to the county's tax books following a disagreement with Cole over what the judge described as "a personal matter".

The issue had come to the attention of the courts after Cole denied Winton and the company he owns and operates access to the county's tax records and Winton responded with legal action. The dispute originally arose from a disagreement the two men had over the sale of several apartments by Cole and whether or not his ex-wife might have any claim to a portion of the proceeds. According to testimony and court documents, at the time Winton had told Cole he needed to get his ex-wife to sign off on the sale, or that he would not be able to provide the title insurance necessary to close the sale.

Cole contended that Winton was overstepping his authority in the matter, and later the same day acquired the needed title insurance from another Clay County firm.

The disagreement prompted Cole to restrict Clay County Abstract from accessing the county's tax records, which then led to Winton seeking the injunction. In turn, Cole then mandated that all companies doing such business in the county also follow the guidelines he established for Winton's firm. The new policy called for all companies wanting access to the tax books to make an appointment with Cole, who would then allow them to view the books.

In explaining his action in court, Cole noted "I lost all trust and confidence in Mr. Winton as a businessman, and did not feel he should be trusted with the tax records of this county."

On Friday, July 25, the matter was heard and the temporary injunction was granted, allowing Winton access to the tax books. The hearing this past week before Judge Laser was to decide whether the temporary injunction would be continued.

The original court papers filed by Winton also named Clay County judge Gary Howell, and all members of the quorum court, as defendants. At the onset of Friday's hearing, the JP's and Howell were released from the complaint at the request of county attorney Mike Trail, who was on hand to represent Cole. Winton was being represented by Piggott attorney Lisa Davis.

At the start of the hearing, Trail also asked that the matter be dropped, due to the fact that Cole had rescinded the order with a letter that was mailed out earlier that week. The letter of Aug. 6 dropped the earlier restriction on access to the books to all county companies, noting that it was not a feasible plan while adding that all the companies in the county should not be penalized for the actions of one firm. Winton contended that he was not made aware of the letter until late Thursday, and chose to continue with the legal action in an effort to recoup his legal fees, court costs and attorney fees.

During the course of the hearing both men took the stand and recounted the events that led up to the dispute and the correspondence that prompted the court action. On several aspects of the case the two men did not agree, and both were recalled by their attorneys in an effort to clarify the matters.

At the conclusion of the testimony, Judge Laser ruled the temporary injunction would remain in effect through Dec. 31 of this year, Cole's last day in office. In announcing his decision, the judge noted that Cole had overstepped the bounds of his authority in restricting access to the tax records. He also ruled that Winton would be reimbursed a total of $605 for court costs and filing fees, but did not award the payment of his attorney fees. The judge added that in his opinion the issue should have been resolved before it ever made it to the court docket, and noted "that's not what this court is about..and it's offensive to be used in this fashion."

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