July 20. 2017 12:53AM

Gatsas files suit, saying critics defamed him with rape cover-up charges

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN
New Hampshire Union Leader


TED GATSAS 

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas filed a lawsuit seeking damages that charges a longtime former alderman and a persistent critic with defaming him with the accusation that Gatsas engineered a cover-up of a West High School rape so he could narrowly win reelection in 2015.

The suit brought in Hillsborough County Superior Court North accuses ex-Alderman Bill Cashin and critic Jon Hopwood of committing “actual malice” by lodging accusations against Gatsas even though they know them to be false.

“I will fight for my integrity and that is what I intend to do,” Gatsas said during a telephone interview.

“I think that it is past time that people can just walk around and say whatever they want about public officials even though they are untrue.’’

The suit was launched eight days ago but only came to light after Manchester Alderman-at-Large Joseph Kelly Levasseur revealed its existence on his Facebook page early Wednesday morning.

Levasseur said at the close of the Manchester aldermanic meeting late Tuesday that Gatsas should sue his accusers and that he would represent Gatsas for free if he did.

After the meeting, Gatsas confirmed that he quietly walked up to Levasseur and privately told him of the lawsuit.

Cashin and Hopwood co-authored a four-count complaint calling upon the aldermen to refer Gatsas to the city’s conduct board for an investigation of the charges.

They asked that the conduct panel probe whether Gatsas violated the city charter by interfering with the operation of the police and school departments in their investigation of the 2015 rape of a female student in a hallway at West.

In his letter, Cashin and Hopwood accused Gatsas of violating the city charter on four counts, and asked that if the conduct board found Gatsas guilty of the alleged charter violations the matter be forwarded to the Attorney General’s Public Integrity Unit for further investigation.

The aldermen voted Tuesday, 8-2, to set the complaint aside.

Several aldermen vouched for Gatsas and said many school, police and city officials all made mistakes in judgment by not alerting parents or the community at large about the West High rape.

Gatsas and others have noted Cashin was a co-chairman of Craig’s 2015 campaign.

“First I’d like to thank the member of the Board of Aldermen for seeing the complaint for what it is, a cheap political stunt. It is the lowest form of politics and Joyce Craig should have condemned the act,” Gatsas said.

For her part, Craig has sharply criticized Gatsas for failing to disclose the rape until after Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan announced the conviction of the West High student for the rape.

Concord lawyer and longtime state Senate legal counsel Rich Lehmann filed the nine-page lawsuit July 12 on Gatsas’ behalf and said the accusations went well beyond the bare-knuckled infighting that marks politics today.

“Mr. Gatsas is perfectly aware that criticism of public officials like him may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials, and that the occasionally erroneous statement is inevitable,” Lehmann wrote in the lawsuit.

“While the plaintiff (Gatsas) is unfazed by, and indeed welcomes, the ordinary and sometimes heated public criticism that comes with public responsibility, the defendants’ conduct exceeds the bounds of public decency.

“In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, including New Hampshire, knowingly made false allegations of criminal activity constitute defamation per se.”

Legally, Gatsas is a public figure which means to prove defamation the statements need not only be false to be liable in court but they have to have been made knowing they were false and that they were also brought with “actual malice.”

Here’s one statement in the Cashin-Hopwood complaint the lawsuit said was actionable.

“It is apparent that the reason Mayor Gatsas covered up the West Side rape was to get reelected in 2015; just as it is apparent his false statements of June 2017 were made with the intent to get reelected again,” the statement reads.

Lehmann said that’s well beyond fair comment of someone who is publicly well-known.

“The defendants published these statements with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that these statements were false, or with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not,” the suit reads.

Cashin had not seen the complaint and declined comment until he had.

Hopwood could not be reached but went to his Twitter account Wednesday afternoon to declare that he was “mowing the lawn” so the process server hired to deliver the lawsuit could easily find him.

“@MayorTedGatsas Time to resign,” Hopwood posted Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Hopwood mocked Gatsas’ defense of the allegations against him.

“Joe Louis quote 4 Mayor Gatsas who “welcomed” investigation of his handling of rape. “You can run but you can’t hide,” Hopwood added on Twitter.

Lehmann said in the suit that after more than 20 years serving in state and local office, Gatsas is used to being a target for attack from his critics.

“As such, he is accustomed to public criticism and the rough and tumble of politics,” the suit said.

“However, there are limits to the malicious and false lies intended to impugn a person’s character that can be launched. The defendants far out-stepped those bounds.”

klandrigan@unionleader.com