NASHVILLE — State Rep. John Mark Windle says that he is immune to liability in a defamation lawsuit filed by the CEO of Big South Fork Medical Center’s parent company, and that he was performing his legislative duties when he referred to the businessman, Rennova Health’s Seamus Lagan, as an “Irish gangster.”
Windle, D-Livingston, filed on August 30 for Lagan’s lawsuit against him to be dismissed. In that court filing, Windle’s attorney argued that any comments Windle made about Lagan were “made pursuant to a legitimate legislative function,” which is protected by state law.
William J. Harbison II, an attorney with the Neal & Harwell PLC firm in Nashville who is one of those representing Windle, said that because Windle spoke to the media as a member of the state legislature, “his statements are therefore absolutely privileged because they arose from his conduct as a legislator and were made within the scope of his legislative authority.” Harbison said that Windle had a “legislative duty to investigate and protect the citizens of his district” after receiving “numerous complaints from his constituents following the sudden and possibly illegal closure of a local hospital.”
The filing is the latest in a war of words of sorts between the two men that has escalated since it became obvious earlier this year that Jamestown Regional Medical Center would close.
Windle first referred to Lagan — an Irish national who currently resides in the Bahamas — as an “Irish national’ in a statement to the Herald-Citizen newspaper in Cookeville, after it was reported that Jamestown Regional was on the brink of closing on May 16. “Tennessee citizens deserve better than to be ripped off by an Irish gangster,” Windle told the newspaper. The comments were reported as part of a breaking story on the Herald-Citizen’s website. The story was later replaced by an updated story that did not include the comments.
However, Windle later repeated the “Irish gangster” in an interview with WATE TV in Knoxville.
Though it remains unclear where the report originated, Windle apparently told the Cookeville newspaper that day in May that Jamestown Regional had been ordered to close by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) due to unpaid taxes owed to the IRS. The hospital did not close, and a CMS spokesperson later told the Independent Herald that the agency would not deliver an ultimatum for a hospital to close its doors.
Four weeks later, however, the hospital did close — days after CMS terminated its provider agreement with the hospital. Shortly after, Windle told WATE, “Unfortunately, an Irish gangster was allowed to buy the Jamestown Regional Medical Center.” He also referred to Lagan as a “thief” and said that he had “constantly cheated” the employees of the hospital.”
Lagan did not respond publicly to Windle’s comments. Nine days after Windle’s comments to WATE, however, he filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court, seeking $100,000 in punitive damages. The June 28 lawsuit specifically zeroed in on Windle’s references to Lagan as a “thieft” who “should be prosecuted” and an “Irish gangster.”
In that filing, attorneys for Lagan charged that Windle, “began a malicious, intentional, and egregious campaign to harm (Lagan) by defaming him in the news media.” They went on to say that the lawmaker, “has maliciously defamed and attacked (Lagan) through a series of derogatory and false statements made by (Windle) to several news outlets. (Windle’s) malicious campaign has continued throughout June 2019 and shows no signs of abating.”
However, Article II, Section 13 of the Tennessee Constitution provides legislative privilege that protects lawmakers who are acting in an official capacity. Windle’s attorneys say that shields him from liability in the claims brought by Lagan. They also charged that Lagan is attempting to censor Windle.
“The purpose of this defamation lawsuit … is apparently to punish and silence him for speaking out about a topic (Lagan) wants to censor,” Harbison wrote in the motion to dismiss.
Specifically, Article II, Section 13 of the state constitution says, “Senators and Representatives shall, in all cases, except treason, felony, or breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during the session of the General Assembly; and in going to and returning from the same, and for any speech or debate in either house, they shall not be questioned in any other place.”
Attorneys for Lagan have until the end of this week to file a response to Windle’s motion to dismiss. As of Monday, they had not done so.
Jamestown Regional remains closed, though Rennova has announced that the hospital has been recommended for reinstatement of its Medicare-Medicaid billing privileges. In order for that to happen, the hospital would have to reopen so that the appropriate inspections could be performed by state survey teams working on behalf of CMS. Rennova said on August 19 that it will begin the process of reopening the hospital, but a timeline for that next step has not been announced.
Big South Fork Medical Center in Oneida and Jellico Community Hospital, Rennova’s two other hospitals in the region, remain open — though there were published reports last week of delayed paychecks and a loss of insurance benefits at the Jellico hospital. Earlier this summer, paychecks were delayed at the Oneida facility, though payroll was ultimately made.