By Brandon Martin
An attorney has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesting additional details about a situation that involves city officials and a county resident/business owner.
Tim Anderson, of Anderson & Associates, PC, a Virginia Beach-based law firm, requested the City of Martinsville to release “any and all communication, authorization, or direction from the City Manager” and others authorizing the city attorney to write a letter related to address issues between Ray Reynolds and City Council Member Jennifer Bowles.
As a Collinsville businessman and a supporter of President Donald Trump, Reynolds alleged that members of an online group targeted him because of his support of Trump and that the social media platform was used as a means to defame him by some of its members who allegedly branded him a racist.
The posts, Reynolds alleged, hurt him both personally and professionally.
He added that when he responded to the online claims, “they started putting up pictures of businesses and names of people that were Trump supporters,” and calling Reynolds a “nut” and “crazy.”
He alleged that some of the group members began posting unfavorable reviews on social media pages for his two businesses — one as a contractor and the other as a photographer — and also wrote malicious reviews on the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB’s) website about his businesses. His professional pages on social media were subsequently deleted because, he alleged, group members flagged them for containing hate speech.
After noticing that Bowles — someone he considered a friend — was in the group “and encouraging others to join this group,” Reynolds said that on June 10, he called Bowles to solicit her help in stemming the social media posts.
Reynolds alleged that Bowles, an African American woman who serves on Martinsville City Council and also operates the New Heights Foundation, called him a racist during the call, and allegedly said Reynolds and others like him were the reasons the social media group was created.
“I was in tears when I hung up with her,” Reynolds said. “I was not threatening. I begged her for help. She was elected to represent the whole community. If someone needs help and supports Trump, is she going to deny them help?”
Ironically, Reynolds said that before 2015, he refrained from voicing his political views in public, and that he had never been accused of being a racist until he started supporting Trump.
“I didn’t attack anybody that voted for (Pres.) Obama,” he said, adding that he didn’t even vote before the last presidential election.
Additionally, Reynolds said he has been supportive of minority community members.
“Two Hispanics have worked with me for 25 years,” Reynolds said, adding that he had given a job to an African American man who had been released from jail “when nobody else would give him a chance.”
He also has been supportive of the community as a whole, organizing the annual Jennifer Short Memorial Scholarship Ride.
He added that he also devoted 12 years to photographing players on local sports teams – that is when he first met Bowles. At the time, he said, she was a high school cheerleader.
“I always promoted her. I always supported her,” Reynolds said.
Bowles recalled seeing Reynolds a few times over the years, but she said she never had any substantive conversation with him. Outside of the public appearances where she saw him, “Mr. Reynolds and I have never had any conversations other than in passing,” she said.
Bowles said her telephone conversation with Reynolds was civil on her end, and that allegations that she called anyone a racist are “absolutely not true. At no point in the conversation did I call him a racist nor did I object to him voting for Trump — as is his right as a citizen. There are many citizens who I know openly support President Trump and who I have a very great relationship with, for example, Councilman Danny Turner.”
Bowles said she recalled during the conversation that Reynolds “never said anyone specifically was threatening him, and I didn’t see anyone threatening him on the page when I looked either. I did, however, see posts” in which others were attacked.
She added there wasn’t much more she could do to help regarding the speech rights of others on the page.
“I am not an administrator of the group nor have I invited anyone to the group,” Bowles said. “I was invited after the May 31st Memorial Day Walk of Solidarity. I am not sure why I was targeted and” allegedly “threatened during the call. Mr. Reynolds is not a city resident, so I am not sure why he contacted a city council representative to assist him.”
In addition, “there are other council members and community leaders in the group,” Bowles said.
Vice mayor Chad Martin is among them.
Additionally, Bowles sent a copy of a video allegedly shared by Reynolds after the telephone conversation. In the video, assertions are made against Bowles in her capacity as a member of council. The video has since been removed from public purview.
Bowles said she asked Monday to write a letter as the most basic recourse to solve the issue since she felt she was attacked specifically as a city council member.
Reynolds said he received a cease and desist letter from Assistant City Manager and City Attorney Eric Monday for alleged “defamatory and malicious attacks upon the reputation of council member” Bowles.
“They are an intentional and malicious effort to damage the reputation of Ms. Bowles and her role as Council member for the city,” the letter read, alleging that Bowles had a witness privy to the conversation with Reynolds.
Reynolds questioned whether it was appropriate for Monday to represent Bowles in what he says is a private matter. He said he imagined “a good chunk of taxpayer money” was spent on time writing the letter, and noted that only Bowles had been copied on the letter.
Anderson’s FOIA request also included a clause concerning the powers vested in city attorneys. At question is whether or not Monday was acting appropriately by sending a cease and desist letter to Reynolds on behalf of Bowles in a personal matter.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Monday said, adding that he wrote the letter at Bowles’ request.
He declined to comment on the specifics prompting Bowles to request the letter.
However, Monday said taxpayer funds will not be spent on the issue. He added that he had advised Bowles to seek private counsel if she wished to pursue the issue further.
Additionally, Monday said Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson had knowledge of the letter before it was mailed.
Lydiah Hachbart, the creator of the Martinsville Protest Facebook group, confirmed that Bowles is a group member, but disputes any characterization that the group is anti-Trump.
“There are some people that do post about Trump supporters, but that’s not the whole point of the page,” she said. “It’s mostly informational. We talk about what is bothering us. We share examples of injustice that we see. It’s a community.”
Hachbart said that the group originally began after she was inspired by a social media post from a fellow Martinsville native to start a protest in the area.
“To my knowledge, we haven’t committed any crimes,” she said. “If people don’t like the things that you support, and therefore don’t want to support you, then I don’t think that’s somehow an attack on your character or business. People deserve to choose who they do business with.”
Benjamin Garland Compson-Lawson, a page administrator, said “from what I’ve seen, the ones who have been targeted” by group members “have been outspoken racists. The racism and bigotry is what people in the group care about, you can vote for whomever you want. I believe there is a desire throughout the group to change the status quo, and make racists fearful of openly expressing their hate and bigotry due to the potential of actually being held accountable for being damaging to progress and the community as a whole.”
Compson-Lawson said “there’s no political targeting, however solely as an aside, I would like to point out that point is moot regardless, since political affiliation is not protected from scrutiny and discrimination. If you put it out there, you invite any response or retaliation within the scope of what is legally acceptable.”
Additionally, Compson-Lawson said there are established rules for those posting on the page. For instance, a recent addition was a suggestion to not interact with Reynolds.
Hachbart said she is surprised that anyone considers her group to be at fault for violence and defamation. She cited alleged examples of behaviors from those who she said contest the group, including an alleged claim by Reynolds that someone from the group threatened him.
In fact, Hachbart alleged group members have been on the receiving end of threats from several people. “Some people will even put their gun on their dashboard as they ride by” the protesters, she said.
Hachbart alleged there also were attempts to find the addresses of group members, including the address of Compson-Lawson.
Compson-Lawson added that the group used to be public before alleged threats were made to some of its members. He added that he shared screenshots with law enforcement officers of alleged interactions with Reynolds and others.
Both men said the controversy has impacted them.
“I’ve been having migraines. I’ve lost 15 pounds. I may have even had an ulcer from passing blood internally. I’m in fear for my life,” Reynolds said, and alleged one of his trucks was vandalized by being “keyed.” Tool boxes and other things stored in the vehicle were dismantled.
Reynolds said he spent $3,500 on new security measures at his business after someone tried to gain entry during the middle of the night.
Reynolds said he has talked to the FBI twice and submitted screenshots of texts, emails and phone calls from people he alleges were “inciting violence” and negatively reviewing his business. He said he also filed reports with the law enforcement officers at several levels, and added that some told him certain online behaviors could be considered “domestic terrorism.”
“All people that vote Democrat or Republican, never let anyone attack you for who you support politically,” he said. “This is a free country. Do not let anybody scare you, attack you or bully you.
Compson-Lawson said he also fears for his safety.
“My fiancée and I discussed getting a gun, for fear of the people” that may be incited against them, Compson-Lawson said, and recalled that his fiancée “called me once because she heard a sound at the door and was terrified it might have been someone. We’re both generally more anxious, but (now) also angry.”