Even as the current elected leadership of the city of Henderson wait for a $4 million payout from a fantasy stadium deal they’ve called corrupt — and members of Congress begin to sniff around, asking if former federal officials acted appropriately — one of the defendants in the city’s January lawsuit is refusing to sign a settlement deal because of a gag order.
Land consultant Mike Ford, one of four defendants listed with developer Christopher Milam in the city’s Jan. 28 lawsuit, refused to sign the settlement Thursday, arguing the deal violates his free speech rights to criticize the city.
Mr. Ford is a former Bureau of Land Management official who worked for both the city and Mr. Milam (yes, that’s odd) on the developer’s effort to buy 480 acres of BLM land for an arena complex.
After months of working with city officials, Mr. Milam late last year declared the arena a nonstarter, but still hoped to buy the land and flip it to home builders. That prompted Henderson to sue Mr. Milam and four consultants, alleging fraud.
The city also alleges Mr. Ford used his connections to friend and business partner Bob Abbey, who was then the BLM’s national director, to grease the skids for the deal.
Mr. Ford said he cannot sign the settlement because it includes an unacceptable non-disparagement clause aimed at forcing the parties to keep their mouths shut. He said in a statement: “I am merely asking for the opportunity to speak the ‘truth’ related to my actions associated with the BLM land sale. ... Now, after the city of Henderson has disparaged me, savagely, they are demanding that I give up my First Amendment right and constitutional guarantees to speak out and voice my opinion, or criticize the government, regarding the City’s misconduct ... in this case, or anything else.
“That the city ... would even ask for such a provision is personally offensive,” Mr. Ford added.
The city’s legal team will give Mr. Ford and another defendant two weeks, but if at that point Mr. Ford does not sign, Henderson intends to ask a judge to order him to pay damages, says City Attorney Josh Reid, who was juiced into his current position after the city was persuaded to reduce its hiring standards for his job.
So Mr. Ford had better agree to keep his mouth shut, or he’ll be made to pay? With Luca Brasi standing by their side, it’s hard to imagine the Corleone family doing a better job of “making him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Whether or not Mr. Ford and the other civil defendants did wrong — Mr. Ford insists he did not — he’s right about this gag order. While such agreements are common enough in civil settlements between private parties, any court attempting to enforce this clause would confront the obvious difficulty that arises when the party demanding an end to criticism is a government entity.
The First Amendment specifically protects not only free speech (especially about elected officials), but also the right to petition government for a redress of grievances. Could a court enforce an agreement — extracted under threat of punishment — for a citizen not to tell what he knows about the city, whether it concerns possible corruption or even just incompetence and stupidity?
The city has no right to demand silence. The request for a gag order should be dropped. Libel laws still apply, but if city officials are this anxious to keep their former associates from speaking the truth, voters have every right to wonder what their elected officials are afraid they might learn.