It’s a hateful thing for anyone to say about anyone without having knowledge of it … To just start a rumor and keep a rumor going, it’s a very spiteful thing. - Liberty County BoE Chairwoman Lily Baker
The Liberty County School System superintendent wants to clear the air: She insists rumors circulating about her driving record and employment status are false.
“If there are legal steps to take, I intend to do that,” Dr. Judy Scherer said. “I don’t know all the legal terms, but I consider this personal slander, and I’ve had enough — and the attacks have not just been on me, but they’ve been on other employees in the school system, repeatedly, and we’ve had enough.”
Among the allegations are that Scherer has had up to four DUIs, that people had helped pull her car out of a ditch during one of the incidents and that she has been terminated by the Liberty County Board of Education.
BoE Chairwoman Lily Baker also denied the allegations Monday.
“I’ve heard some of the same rumors, … We have no evidence or nothing brought to us, other than people saying a few things out in the neighborhood,” Baker said. “We’ve asked the question of (Scherer). She says that no such things have happened. We believe that to be true.”
Baker said she takes the matter personally and is sure that Scherer does as well.
“It’s a hateful thing for anyone to say about anyone without having knowledge of it … To just start a rumor and keep a rumor going, it’s a very spiteful thing,” Baker added. “It can do damage — I hope that’s not someone’s intention to make it have a bad reflection on the board or Dr. Scherer, because we try very hard to keep our image in a positive way.”
A recurring rumor
Scherer said she has heard the rumors repeatedly since she was hired in July 2008. She had disregarded them — but a recent resurgence led to so many inquiries that Scherer approached the Courier to address the issue.
The Courier investigated the claims in mid-March and could not find any evidence of such infractions in the Liberty County Court House and through the Hinesville Municipal Court.
Scherer vehemently denied the rumors in March and provided a copy of Hinesville Police Department documentation dated Jan. 4, 2012, that states, “The records checked indicate no criminal history information and no outstanding warrants on this person.”
According to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, FBI background checks are required for professional employment in public schools, and Georgia criminal background checks are required every five years for certificate renewal.
Last week, Scherer also provided two copies of background-check return forms from the time she applied for the superintendent job in 2008. Both forms indicate that there is no record on file and that her fingerprints did not reveal prior arrests.
“I am most unhappy that this rumor continues to persist, and continues to float through the community — and keeps getting things added to it,” Scherer said. “And the newest addition is that (Liberty County) Sheriff (Steve) Sikes is covering for me — which is obviously not true, because there’s nothing to cover. I am tired of the attacks on me, and I am tired of the attacks on him.”
No cover-up involved
On Monday, Sikes said he has never heard anything about Scherer having a DUI and denied any involvement in a cover-up.
“I’ve never had anyone report that she had a DUI; I’ve never had an officer walk in here and say, ‘I could have written her for a DUI,’” he said. “I don’t know of anything on her record — never have, hope I never will.”
Sikes added that he has never fixed a DUI citation since taking the office, and that he does not intend to ever do so.
“It’s just something I personally do not believe in,” he said.
“I would be quickly notified if someone of her status got a ticket,” he added. “I would get a call, probably from the roadside — and I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never gotten anything. But as far as me covering up something, not — no, the hell no.”
The only semblance of truth is that when Scherer was first hired, she had trouble backing out of a parking space one evening at the Sunbury Crab Company while driving her company vehicle, Scherer said.
Scherer said the parking area’s pebbled finish and downhill slope combined with handling a new vehicle made it hard for her to back out, and after several attempts, she got out of the car and had her husband maneuver out of the spot. Afterward, she returned to the drivers’ seat and drove the car away.
A short time later, a grand jury investigated the matter and questioned several LCSS administrators before clearing Scherer of any wrongdoing, she said.
Baker said she did not receive any information from the grand jury about its investigation.
Scherer’s termination and resignation also are among the allegations, with some asserting that the board of education held a called meeting March 13 to terminate her.
The BoE held a regularly scheduled meeting March 13, and it appeared to be business as usual. On March 15, BoE Chairwoman Lily Baker denied that the board held a called meeting or took any action on Scherer’s employment.
Taking legal action
Scherer said she has an indication of who is perpetuating the rumors but is in the process of finding the ability to prove it, and she intends to take legal action.
Arnold, Stafford and Randolph attorney Drew Johnson said the incident sounds like a slander case.
Slander is when a false and malicious statement is expressed orally, while libel is a false and malicious statement reduced to writing. The two types of cases are very similar.
“Imputing a crime to someone is one of the big ones,” Johnson said. “Usually, when bringing a slander action, you have to show and prove actual damages right off the bat, in monetary terms. When speaking with a potential client for the first time, this is one of the first questions we would ask. However, when you impute a crime to someone and they bring a slander action, damages are presumed and do not have to be shown.”
Issues relating to defamation and slander are complicated and require an examination of the players and their intentions.
An element of a defamation charge is “malice,” which must also be shown for a plaintiff to recover damages. In this case, Scherer’s role as superintendent of schools may reduce her protections if the court considers her to be a public official. When a public official brings an action, he or she must prove that the statements were made with “actual malice” — either that the person making the statements knew the statements were false, or that the statements were made with reckless regard for the truth. If it were merely a private citizen bringing the action, the malice element would be presumed.
According to the statute, there are two forms of slander potentially at issue here: “imputing to another a crime punishable by law” and “making charges against another in reference to his or her trade, office or profession, calculated to injure therein.”
With both elements, damage can be inferred and does not need to be proven, Johnson said. However, an attorney always wants to be able to show the court how his client was harmed.
Truth is an automatic defense for a defendant in a slander suit; that is, if what he or she has alleged is true, there is no case for slander.
However, if there is no merit to the allegations against Scherer, the next level of analysis is whether the statements were made with malice, negligence or in good faith.
Good faith can be a defense to slander and libel, while simple carelessness or negligence can be a defense to slander.
“In this type of case, (Scherer) can say, they brought all of this stuff up that is patently false, and it’s up to the person who brought the allegations to prove they were not malicious,” Johnson said. “An element of slander is malice, and in certain types of situations, malice is inferred from the character of the charge — and it would be up to the person making the statements, if they were brought to court, the duty is on them to rebut the charge of malice.”