This is a news analysis.
Greg Parker’s legal team was called to the principal’s office last week after one of their attorneys used Instagram to contact Judge Bentley Price’s law clerk “after-hours” about the Mallory Beach civil conspiracy case — which, in part, accuses Parker of hiring “knife-fighters” to bully the Beach family over social media.
Which makes this moderately ironic.
On Wednesday night, Rhett Ricard of Nexsen Pruet — the same law firm attached to the Murdaugh family’s public relations team — sent a direct message to Aimee Intagliata over Instagram to tell her they needed to “serve” Price with a petition for a writ of mandamus and to ask if she could accept service on his behalf.
The next morning, the judge called everyone in for a virtual meeting, where he offered Parker’s team the benefit of the doubt.
Price told attorney Mark Moore, also of Nexsen Pruet, that he was assuming the message was the result of Ricard’s account having been hacked because Ricard has his clerk’s work email address and knows to contact her that way.
In fact, the judge was so certain about his hacked-account theory that he bet his lunch on it.
It couldn’t possibly be true that an attorney would reach out to his law clerk on social media to ask a question that, to the judge’s mind, made no sense to ask in the first place. The petition doesn’t need to be served to him, he said. And certainly his law clerk wouldn’t need to accept service on his behalf even if that were the case. So there must be a reasonable explanation here.
“I wish you were correct,” Moore told him.
The incident is the latest sweaty effort on the part of Parker’s team to keep the Beach family from getting the thousands of “knife-fighter” emails and documents that were released to their attorney Mark Tinsley earlier this month.
They argue that the documents are attorney-client work product and therefore not subject to discovery — meaning Tinsley, in their opinion, has no business looking through Parker’s stuff.
They say he’s using the discovery process in this case to help him in another case involving Parker’s Kitchen and the Beach family.
The prolonged and cut-throat fight has resulted in a near-constant and frantic battle in which Parker’s team gets knocked down then powers through.
Either Greg Parker has hired a team of legal vikings willing to burn down every village to defend their client to the possible detriment of their own reputations or this latest incident offers mounting proof that whatever is in those documents … it ain’t good.
Some Quick Background …
Parker is the owner of Parker’s Kitchen, a popular chain of gas stations and convenience stores in Georgia and South Carolina.
Parker’s Kitchen is a defendant — along with Alex and Buster Murdaugh, as well as the estates of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh — in a 2019 wrongful death case filed by Beach’s mother on behalf of Mallory’s estate.
Mallory Beach, 19, was killed when a boat believed to have been driven by Paul Murdaugh crashed into a bridge in Beaufort County. Prior to the crash, Paul — who also was 19 at the time — had purchased alcohol at Parker’s Kitchen using his older brother’s license to do so, which he was able to successfully use despite their notable size differences.
Beach’s family filed a second lawsuit in December 2021 when photos of Mallory’s body — as well as other confidential court materials — appeared in a publicly available sizzle reel promoting a documentary about the Murdaugh family featuring the work of reporter Vicky Ward.
Tinsley says Ward told him around Sept. 14, 2021, that she had “purchased portions of what she called ‘the Beach case file’ and that the same came from ‘Parker and his law firm’ of ‘Baker Hostetler‘ but that she felt ‘they were slimy,’ they ‘had an agenda’ and that she ‘has nothing to do with them’ other than she received ‘their stuff.’”
Both Ward, who is a co-defendant in the case, and Parker vehemently deny this.
In addition to Parker and Ward, the Beach family is suing Gregory M. Parker Inc., Parker’s Corporation, Parker’s in-house counsel Blake Greco, Parker’s attorney Jason D’Cruz, and private investigators Max Fratoddi and Henry Rosado of Private Investigations Services Group LLC.
The Beach family says Parker was motivated to distribute the confidential materials — which included the photos of their child, who was in the water for a week before she was found — because he wanted to weaken their resolve in continuing their legal fight against him. They say he wanted them to give up the case and go away.
In addition to this, they say, Parker hired “social media knife-fighters” in the form of Wesley Donehue of The Laurens Group and Push Digital, agencies that specialize in aggressive marketing, brand strategy and crisis management.
Though the complaint doesn’t give specific examples, it accuses the agencies of using social media posts from fake accounts to malign the Beach family and manipulate public opinion so that more blame would be shifted onto the Murdaughs and the boat’s passengers — specifically Mallory — and therefore lessen any liability Parker’s Kitchen might carry.
Donehue denies engaging in any efforts meant to harm Mallory Beach or her family.
Nevertheless, the Beach family’s attorneys subpoenaed Donehue, as well as private investigator Sara Capelli, for information about the work they did for Parker.
On Monday, attorneys for Ward argued in Hampton County Court that she should be dismissed from the case altogether.
“She’s just a news reporter who received leaked information and allegedly published it.”
This admission — that the information had been “leaked” to Ward — could end up proving troublesome for whoever leaked it.
The photos of Mallory Beach’s body that were used in Ward’s video appeared to be ones taken by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office’s Crime Scene Unit.
FITSNews filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Sheriff’s Office for a list of anyone who had received this specific set of photos, including other law enforcement agencies.
After the photos were taken, they were uploaded and submitted to the evidence unit. They were not released to any member of the media, general public or any other law enforcement agency.
They were released to only two people.
One was Tinsley.
The other person was E. Mitchell Griffith, who up until a month ago represented Parker’s in the wrongful death case.
Ward’s attorneys called their client’s video a “matter of public concern.”
The photos of Mallory Beach’s body were used interstitially in Ward’s video and as dramatic punctuation for the unrelated 9-1-1 call Alex Murdaugh made the night his wife and son were murdered, more than two years after Mallory’s death.
Ward’s attorneys compared her case to the release of The Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and The Washington Post in 1971.
The Pentagon Papers were documents leaked to the press that showed the American government was grossly misleading the public on the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration sought to put a stop to the documents’ publication.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided in favor of a free press: “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”
Ward’s video, which is produced, in part, by People magazine featured an ominous narration, dramatic music and “exclusive access to dozens of never-before-seen videos.”
As a reminder, The Pentagon Papers were not published to entertain the masses but rather to inform the public of government malfeasance.
As of Friday afternoon, Price had not issued his ruling on Ward’s motion for dismissal.
The ‘Back And Forth’
In February, Parker’s team sought to quash the subpoenas sent by Tinsley to Donehue and Capelli, saying that the work both had produced was subject to the attorney-client privilege and therefore could not be accessed by anyone other than Parker and his designees.
They asked the court to order Donehue and Capelli to “return” the work they did for Parker to Parker.
The parties met in March for a hearing that was described as explosive by those with knowledge of the event. During the hearing, Tinsley accused Parker of hiring Capelli to follow Paul and Buster Murdaugh to collect information about Paul’s drinking and Buster’s sex life, in the hopes that it would lessen his business’ potential liability in the boat crash case.
A document filed by Tinsley referred to photographs that were apparently presented in court that day showing Capelli who allegedly bought alcohol for minors during her investigation of Paul Murdaugh.
In late March, Price decided that Donehue and Capelli should turn their work over to Tinsley.
Immediately, Parker’s team filed motions to stop the transaction and Price amended his ruling, asking that all of Donehue’s and Capelli’s work for Parker be turned over to him instead for review so that he could determine whether attorney-client privilege applied to the information.
After reviewing thousands of records, as well as photos and video, Price again ordered that Donehue and Capelli turn over their materials to Tinsley, ruling that anything the Parker’s team considered to be privileged could be discussed at a later date in terms of whether the court would consider it admissible.
Late on April 29 — a Friday — Price’s clerk alerted the parties to this ruling in an email, which Tinsley appears to have forwarded to the attorney for Donehue.
In turn, Donehue provided the materials to Tinsley over the weekend.
It wasn’t until Tuesday that Parker’s discovered = Tinsley had received the materials and requested an emergency hearing.
On May 6, the parties met in a Beaufort County courtroom, where Parker’s team argued that the law clerk’s email to the group was not the same as a signed judge’s order or a signed “Form 4” containing the details of the judge’s ruling, therefore Tinsley had inappropriately received the information and they wanted him barred from reading the materials.
Price reminded Parker’s attorneys that he had told them he would review the documents to assess whether the “vast majority” were privileged as the attorneys were claiming.
“I did that,” he said. “What I was trying to prevent is what’s happening today, the back and forth. We’re going to take up 14 hours of the court’s time to do exactly what I’ve already done.”
Price reminded the Parker’s team that they themselves had argued previously that “nothing in those documents is going to help Mr. Tinsley.”
Tinsley pointed out to the judge that the Parker’s team had the same notice he had of the ruling and that they didn’t take action Friday, nor did they act Saturday, Sunday or even Monday when Parker’s team returned to work.
It wasn’t until 10 p.m. Monday night, Tinsley told the court, that it became an “emergency” to them.
Though he had contacted Donehue’s attorney immediately after the email about the ruling, he said, “I didn’t necessarily know I was going to get (the documents).”
Price asked Tinsley how much of the materials he had read. Tinsley told him “most.”
“Obviously, the cat’s out of the bag,” the judge told Parker’s attorneys. But he agreed to withhold Capelli’s work, which Tinsley had not yet received, and told Tinsley not to disseminate the documents he already had in his possession.
In the meantime, Parker’s attorneys filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, though Price’s ruling likely does not meet the standards for appeal.
His legal team also issued a petition for a writ of mandamus asking the Court of Appeals to order Price to designate the material as privileged and exempt from discovery.
The Instagram Message
A writ of mandamus is an order handed down by the court to a government agency that essentially mandates a duty be performed.
For instance, if a clerk in the elections office refuses to accept a candidate’s application to run for office because the candidate is a woman and he doesn’t believe women should hold positions of power, a writ of mandamus would compel him to accept her application because that is her right, it is his job and there is no other way for the would-be candidate to fix the situation.
It is unclear how a writ of mandamus would work in this particular case, as Price’s ruling allowed for pre-trial objections from Parker’s attorneys. Also a judge’s job is quite literally to consider the merits of an argument and make a judgment — which places Price’s decision squarely within the scope of his duties.
A 2002 South Carolina Supreme Court opinion addresses the issue of a party using a petition for a writ of mandamus to compel a more favorable decision from a judge.
“Issuance of a particular decision by a judge is typically a matter of discretion and, therefore, not proper for mandamus.”
Nevertheless, Ricard reached out to Price’s law clerk Wednesday evening to ask if she would accept service of the petition on behalf of Price.
On Thursday morning, Moore told Price that Ricard chose to ask the clerk over Instagram because “he thought it was the easiest.”
Price questioned the need for service in the first place, but the 2002 Supreme Court opinion ruled that a petition for a writ of mandamus should have been served upon the judge in that case.
Moore said they were trying to get their petition filed this week and “I did not want your honor to be served by a process server.”
But the Instagram message was “not something I authorized,” Moore said. “I apologize.”
Then he said something interesting: Ricard had communicated with Price’s law clerk over Instagram prior to Wednesday.
It is not known what that communication might have been but, for her part, Intagliata looked shocked at Moore’s suggestion.
Though it was not mentioned during Thursday’s meeting, lawyers are restricted from engaging in unauthorized ex parte communications — or discussions between the court and lawyers for one party without the presence of lawyers for the other party.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at [email protected] or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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