Note from The Van Horn Advocate editor: We have published this editorial with permission from Peach Pundit in Georgia because the First Amendment should not be infringed by any person who holds a public office. This piece, including the original story from journalist George Chidi, is being republished with permission.
On Monday, Peach Pundit contributor George Chidi posted this piece on Tom Owens, a candidate for DeKalb Countyâ€™s Commission. Itâ€™s detailed. Itâ€™s thorough. Itâ€™s tough but itâ€™s fair. Itâ€™s the work of a professional journalist.
Mr. Owensâ€™ response was to accuse George Chidi of stalking him. He sought and received a temporary protective order from a DeKalb County Magistrate Judge ordering George not to contact Mr. Owens or come within 100 feet of him.
Mr. Chidi has only contacted Mr. Owens at public events and via calls/text messages. As the tough but fair professional that he is, he wanted to give Mr. Owens every opportunity to get his side of the story on the record as part of Georgeâ€™s piece.
Instead, Mr. Owens has sought not only to chill the efforts of a journalist trying to investigate and inform about the history of a public figure, but has had Mr. Chidi receive a notice from the court that he has violated the TPO by writing about receiving the TPO on his own blog and Facebook.
This, in any reasonable assessment, is unconscionable.
Nine years ago, PeachPundit was launched as a site for discussing Georgia politics. Today we operate as an established news organization. Our editors are routinely offered press credentials to political events at the state and national level. Because of sites like PeachPundit, traditional media outlets have embraced and extended the blog format, recognizing that good journalism takes many different forms.
Mr. Chidi is a published freelance reporter with contributions to publications such as The Guardian, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Inc. Magazine.
Although PeachPundit is considered by some to be “right leaningâ€, Mr. Chidi, has among the many items on his resume that he was an Occupy Atlanta Organizer.
Claiming that the “blogâ€ format is not journalism is disingenuous. Dismissing Mr. Chidiâ€™s professional journalism credentials as both a freelancer and contributor to this site is unacceptable.
Those of us at Peach Pundit come from diverse backgrounds and ideologies, but share in common the spirt of learning and reporting the truth, wherever that journey leads us.
Despite our varied political differences, we as the Publisher and Editors of Peach Pundit fully support George Chidi, journalist, and his right to report without the blatantly unconstitutional interference from the DeKalb County Magistrateâ€™s court.
We stand behind George, and will fight to ensure that he continues to be able to report the truth, even when others wish to abuse the legal system as part of a pattern of intimidation.
GEORGE CHIDI'S ORIGINAL ARTICLE AS IT APPEARED ON PEACH PUNDIT, OCT. 6, 2014 (Used with permission)
(This is a chapter in my unfinished, yet-untitled book about civic participation in Georgia politics. Itâ€™s also opposition research madness for those inclined. Enjoy.)
Tom Owens is what happens when no one gives a damn about local government.
Owens wants to replace Elaine Boyer on the DeKalb County commission, now thatâ€™s she has resigned and is going to jail.
Owens is also a man amok.
The 62-year-old Vietnam veteran and anti-immigration activist has a years-long history of legal trouble tied to harassment of political figures, acquaintances and romantic targets. He pleaded no contest to a stalking charge in Forsyth County, with a note in the documentation tying his behavior to mental health issues. At least three people have obtained restraining orders against him in the last eight years, the most recent of which expired this year.
One target of his harassment met me at the door of his home with a gun in hand at the mere mention of Owensâ€™ name.
Owensâ€™ apparent ex-fiancee sued him a few years ago, alleging that he financially abandoned their child in 1995. She told me she dropped the suit in part because he continually ducked service of the subpoena, in part because she was too broke to keep chasing him, and in part because she believed he was probably too broke to cover his obligations in any case. Questions of paternity can be fraught, of course. But given Owensâ€™ stated rationale for his candidacy â€” integrity â€” I think this is fair game.
Owens also remains in a long-running legal dispute with a mosque built on property behind his house in Doraville. Filings by the Al Maad Al Islami mosque allege that Owens threatened to kill their imam.
Meanwhile, the head of a Christian religious charity found herself filing a police report less than five months ago, complaining that Owens had come to her to her thrift shop to berate her for her insufficient hate toward African Muslims â€¦ spitting on the shop doors while he was at it.
Were any of this isolated stuff, it might be ignored. And I might otherwise write off Owensâ€™ run as the delusion of a fringe candidate in any case. It would be easy.
The north DeKalb Republican political establishment has lined up behind former school board member Nancy Jester. She faces former county planning commissioner and attorney Wendy Butler, retired engineer (and two-time Boyer-challenger) Larry Danese and Holmes E. Pyles, an 86-year-old retired civil servant running as an independent.
“Anyone has the right to run for public office,â€ said State Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican. “I respect Mr. Owensâ€™ service to his country. However, I do not consider him a viable candidate for this position.â€
But too many voters have abandoned DeKalb politics to the mendacious and the mad. The AJC and other media outlets have no spare capacity to dive into a local race. A superficially-observed local election leaves Owens with a puncherâ€™s chance in a fight, since a five-way race could go to a thinly-attended December runoff. And the sheer length and breadth of the complaints against Owens merit a word or two. Or a few thousand.
Thomas Mitchell Owens, if nothing else, has a keen sense of self-promotion. He has theatrically leafleted and harangued public figures on far-right anti-immigration issues for years, drawing himself into favor with the more zealous activists in the state. Owens is also a Vietnam vet who rejoined the Army at 55, as perhaps the oldest enlistee in Army history, drawing some Google-able media attention. But heâ€™s plainly hoping to capitalize on his current claim to fame as Boyerâ€™s principal accuser before the countyâ€™s ethics board.
Never mind, of course, that his accusations largely consisted of repeating claims made by a very expensive Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. Let us please forget that Boyer resigned because the FBI had her dead to rights. His nameâ€™s on the dotted line on an ethics case.
That was enough to earn the praise of Governor Nathan Deal at a veteranâ€™s event a couple weeks ago. “Well, Tom, I want to thank you for your diligence and your persistence as a citizen to make sure that everyone is held accountable, especially when theyâ€™re dealing with taxpayer funds and taxpayer resources,â€ Deal said while Owensâ€™ cameraperson captured the scene. “You have set a great example of the kind of way that it should be done in a proper and efficient manner, and I congratulate you on that.â€
It seems Owens snuck one by the governorâ€™s team at the event. Owensâ€™ friend and fellow Boyer complainant Joe Newton had staked out the post-event reception with a video camera, said Deal spokeswoman Jennifer Talaber. “This is not an endorsement and this was not about Elaine Boyer.â€ As Owens approached, Newton told the governor that the guy started a P-Card abuse investigation and asked him to comment on it, she said. “There was no mention of him replacing her or endorsing his candidacy at all.â€
And, of course, Owensâ€™ site carefully avoids saying anything more than that.
Owens has been good at finding the limelight. NPR covered his reenlistment in 2008 as a 55-year-old, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Army Reserve specialist. Owens first served in the Army in Vietnam as a 17-year-old. He was pushed out of the active duty Army during a reduction in force in the â€™80s, before earning a full 20-year retirement, and then again from the reserves in a second RIF. But when the Army raised the enlistment age during the Iraq War, his prior service allowed him to re-up.
“I didnâ€™t join the army to be behind a desk somewhere,â€ Owens told NPR. “My intention is to be on the front lines with them supporting the war effort the best I can.â€
His reserve unit â€“ an ammo company in north Georgia â€” subsequently deployed without him, his former company commander Thomas Boswick told me, saying little more. Owens retired from the Army for good shortly after, presumably leaving him with a pension and free time on his hands to annoy reasonable people.
The highest-profile example of this might be Owensâ€™ ongoing suit with a mosque built on land adjacent to his home in Doraville. Owens accused the mosque and associated school of “excessive noise, traffic, sanitary and stormwater backups or overflows, and state of disrepairâ€ that has damaged his own abutting property.
But at heart, the dispute looks like itâ€™s about money.
Zillow pegs Owensâ€™ home on Beacon Drive in Doraville, near the Home Depot, at about $100,000 today. Al Maad Al Islami claims the house was probably worth less than $75,000 when they offered $150,000 for it.
Owens refused. His counteroffer was $500,000, according to the mosqueâ€™s filings.
When Al Maad Al Islami refused the crazy bingo counter, Owens “became belligerent, hostile and threatening,â€ according to the mosqueâ€™s countersuit. Owens began agitating for code enforcement to cite the mosque. The mosque was eminently cite-able, to be clear, but Owens called often enough for code enforcement to ask him to knock it off. And when code enforcement quit returning his calls, he began haranguing them in public.
“We donâ€™t need any more code enforcement people, not to hire anymore,â€ Owens said at a recent forum in Dunwoody. “I go down there in my investigation and half of them are sleeping in their vehicles down in Decatur.â€
Owens called WSB-TV and Jodie Fleischer for some traditional hit-and-run TV coverage that plays well to the anti-immigration set. The supposedly “investigativeâ€ story highlights the code enforcement issues. She interviewed Tom Owens while he apparently was wearing his military uniform. Fleischer says nothing about Owensâ€™ financial stake in the case. That would have required reporting.
“Someone is harassing us, and youâ€™re helping him,â€ an imam told the news reporter at his door.
The mosqueâ€™s counterclaim alleges that Owens “threatened to kill the Imam of the mosque,â€ a charge Owens denied in filings. Owens has claimed the opposite according to police records â€” that the imam threatened to kill him. Theyâ€™ve been back and forth in court ever since.
Zubair Faridi, a member of the mosque who filed a police report in March 2012 alleging harassment by Owens, said theyâ€™ve done whatever they could to accommodate him.
“Weâ€™ve treated him as a neighbor, and we want a relationship. We try to make him comfortable, and weâ€™ve been very open with him. He said he wanted to sell his property. We gave him an offer thatâ€™s above fair market value.â€ His tone suggested deep irritation â€“ exasperation, really, about the dispute, along with concerns about drawing more harassment by speaking openly about Owensâ€™ behavior.
Despite the vitriol, Faridi remained philosophical.
“I always wish him well,â€ he said. “Itâ€™s part of my faith.â€
James Burkart had a gun in his hand while he was talking to me. It took me a second to realize it.
After reading the details of the restraining order Burkart taken out against Tom Owens, I felt compelled to hear the rest of the tale. But he wasnâ€™t answering his phone, and I couldnâ€™t find an email address. Heâ€™s an IT guy and I find hard-to-find stuff for a living. Heâ€™s off the grid on purpose.
According to Burkartâ€™s 2013 restraining order against Owens and his police report from Doraville, Owens had “repeatedly harassed him over the past 10 years,â€ from chucking the bird while jogging in front of Burkartâ€™s home and calling him a “fâ€”-ing faâ€“otâ€ to showing up at Burkartâ€™s work at Home Depot to take pictures of him and his supervisor with the intent of getting him fired. The police report says Owens was literally peeping from around the corner of aisles in the store to watch him.
Ironically, I had to visit Burkart one weeknight at his home for an explanation.
When I said I was writing about Tom Owens, Burkart came to the door and stood a bit awkwardly in his front doorway to talk. He kept his right hand just out of view behind the frame. He asked some questions, intensely, about who I was and who I might be with. I offered my business card. A female friend came out to take it so he wouldnâ€™t have to move.
Burkart said that he had given up his guns before he met Owens, but heâ€™d had to get some more since. In a later conversation, he confirmed that he had a pistol in his hand, finger out of the trigger well, just in case I turned out to be some nutty confidant of Owensâ€™ looking for a way to get at him.
“Tomâ€™s not right,â€ Burkart said. “Tomâ€™s a nut. He said that I tried to kill him, that I was trying to hack his computer with my database at work â€¦ I had to hire a lawyer, and get a personal protection order. It cost me about three grand.â€
I asked Burkart how this began.
“He was in the store where I work and tried to befriend me, and then it was like â€¦ odd comments,â€ he said. “Letâ€™s go to the shooting range, letâ€™s go to the Falcons game, letâ€™s go to a Braves game. Itâ€™s like, you know what? I donâ€™t really like the nâ€“ger speech. I donâ€™t like that other speech. â€¦ That was the red flag. The nâ€“ger speech, and like nâ€“ger motherfuâ€“er, and the f-g-ass. You know what? Iâ€™m busy. Youâ€™re busy. Thanks. Good bye.â€
Burkartâ€™s description of a flip from beckoning to hostility matches a pattern in other accounts of Owens in public record.