FAYETTEVILLE — Both sides fired their opening salvos with double barrels of questions and objections before a jury of five men and three women Friday as Charlotte Pritt’s nine-year-old defamation lawsuit against several Republican organizations commenced in Fayette County Circuit Judge Paul Blake’s courtroom.

Attorneys proffered their respective opening statements and followed up by alternately questioning and cross-examining a political consultant for Pritt’s failed 1996 gubernatorial campaign.

Pritt alleged in her 1997 lawsuit that political ads broadcast against her during that campaign by the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Victory Committee were defamatory.

In opening remarks, Pritt attorney Hugh Roberts blasted as misleading the assertions made in the anti-Pritt ads.

“Did her record really support those claims,” he asked the jury. “Measure these allegations against Pritt the school teacher. She has a reputation as a good legislator.

Roberts directed his ire primarily at two of the six charges made in the ads — that Pritt voted in the state Senate against prohibiting the sale of X-rated movies to minors and that she voted to teach first-graders about the use of condoms.

The other charges are aimed at what are construed by the ads as votes against requiring the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by school children, a flag-burning amendment and honoring Gulf War veterans. She was also described as voting against a bill that would prohibit drug abusers from serving in the public school system.

In his turn, Bobby Birchfield, an attorney representing the GOP-based groups, vowed he would tell jurors what radio legend Paul Harvey calls “the rest of the story.” He placed the burden of proof in the case squarely on the plaintiff.

“My client believed the ads were true when they ran and believes they are true to this day,” he said.

“During her time in the Legislature, Ms. Pritt compiled a record that is true to the ads. She filed suit more than a year after the ads ran. Maybe she can explain why she waited so long to file suit. My clients have nothing to hide. These ads were hard-hitting, to be sure, but politics is a rough-and-tumble sport.”

Pritt could be seen several times during Birchfield’s monologue shaking her head in dissent.

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As testimony got under way, Pritt attorney Roger Foreman questioned Michael Plant about the consulting work he performed for his client 10 years ago. Plant said he had worked on governor’s races in several states and had offices in West Virginia and California.

Plant alleged that, according to his opposition research at the time, the Victory Committee was guaranteed by a line of credit at a bank in Virginia. Not a single West Virginian, he asserted, contributed to the organization.

Under questioning from Foreman, Plant also indicated that when the ads exploded onto local airwaves on a Friday, it delayed and hampered the Pritt campaign’s ability to respond.

Birchfield grilled Plant over some ads that then-candidate Joe Manchin fielded — and later yanked — against Pritt leading up to the 1996 Democratic primary. Those ads made similar allegations to those under question currently.

“Didn’t Manchin’s ads cite the wrong legislative bill number,” Birchfield queried, as to the reason the ads were pulled. Birchfield referred to then-Kanawha County Prosecutor Bill Forbes’ rejection of Plant’s complaint that Manchin violated state law by citing an inaccurate bill number.

Birchfield then displayed an internal campaign memo wherein he alleged Plant seemed to concede that Pritt voted against making the sale of X-rated videos to minors illegal — a charge lobbed in one of the ads.

The trial continues Monday.

— E-mail: mhill@register-herald.com

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