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Principal’s lawsuit targets candidate for Prince William school board chair

© Leesburg Today - 08/25/2015

A two-year rift between two Gainesville-area youth baseball leagues is heading back to court -- this time in a lawsuit that Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop has filed against Ryan Sawyers, one of three candidates for chairman of the Prince William County School Board.

Bishop's suit, filed in Prince William Circuit Court in February, seeks $3.35 million in damages from Sawyers and co-defendant Guy Morgan, a Gainesville entrepreneur and owner of the historic Ovoka Farm, located about 12 miles outside Middleburg.

The lawsuit charges defamation of character, civil conspiracy and ""interference with business expectancies and contractual relations"" and seeks $1 million in compensatory damages on each charge, plus $350,000 in punitive damages, according to court documents.

The suit alleges that Sawyers and Morgan sullied Bishop's reputation and sought to have him fired from Patriot High School through ""a campaign of emails"" sent to school division officials in 2014.

The emails, included in court documents, express concerns about Bishop's actions as president of the Gainesville Haymarket Baseball League, which launched in late 2011 as an affiliate of the Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth Baseball League.

The league's all-star team for 14-year-olds is currently playing in the Babe Ruth Baseball World Series in Pine Bluff, Ark. The team won the state championship and the Southeast regional championship to earn a spot in the national tournament. In all, the GHBL had about 850 registered participants this past spring.

Sawyers is the president of the Bull Run Little League, also based in Gainesville but affiliated with the larger and older Little League International.

The two leagues have been at odds since 2013 when Sawyers, a former board member of the Gainesville Haymarket league, left the organization with a few other members to re-activate a charter the Gainesville District Little League held with Little League International prior to the formation of the Gainesville Haymarket league. The Bull Run Little League has about 450 participants and fielded 43 teams this spring.

The split has sparked disputes about access to county baseball fields and rights to the assets of the original Gainesville District Little League.

Sawyers is a former college baseball player and coach who owns College Athletics101, a firm that promotes and facilitates youth sports camps sponsored by college athletic teams. He spent four years as a coach with the Purdue University Boilermakers before moving to Gainesville in 2012.

Morgan, whose son plays with the Bull Run league but also formerly played on the Gainesville Haymarket league and the original Gainesville District league, is managing partner of Blue Creek Capital and the former chairman and CEO of Chicago-based BlueStar Energy Solutions, according to his LinkedIn page.

The Morgans also raise cattle at the storied Ovoka Farm, which was once part of a 3,000-acre land grant from Lord Fairfax to Robert ""King"" Carter. George Washington used a stone garden house on the property to survey surrounding land, and the farm was occupied, at different times, by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.

In December 2013, Morgan filed a lawsuit against all GHBL board members, including Bishop, which sought no monetary damages but asked for an injunction against the GHBL's 2013 board elections, which Morgan alleged were improper. That suit was dismissed in 2014 by a Prince William County judge, who said Morgan lacked standing to sue.

In addition to emails to school division officials, Bishop's lawsuit cites a now-defunct website, OurGHBL.com, which detailed several complaints about Bishop and the GHBL leadership. The lawsuit attributes the site to Sawyers and Morgan and states that both the emails and the website ""were replete with defamatory statements about the Plaintiff.""

Both Sawyers and Morgan have declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit. But Morgan's attorney, Jon Casadont, offered a brief statement on his client's behalf, saying the suit is ""wholly without merit,"" and adding: ""We look forward to challenging it in court.""

Bishop has also declined to comment. Bishop has been principal of Patriot High School since it opened in 2011 and has three young sons.

According to court documents, Sawyers wrote an email to Brentsville School Board member Gil Trenum in May 2014 about an email Bishop sent to Gainesville baseball families in December 2013 that Sawyers said discouraged them from registering their children to play with the Bull Run Little League.

Bishop's email, which is also included in court documents, states: ""We would caution all our members to not be enticed to sign up for a baseball league which has no fields and has not been authorized to use fields in Prince William County.""

In his email to Trenum, Sawyers contends Bishop's email was not only inaccurate about Bull Run not being assigned playing fields (county officials allotted Bull Run teams field space shortly thereafter) but was also a possible violation of the school division's code of conduct for professional behavior.

""As an elected Board of Education official, do you find it appropriate for one of your principals, through his baseball group, to send an email to thousands of area residents telling them to not sign up for a new baseball league?"" Sawyers wrote. ""Do you find it appropriate for your school officials to publicly encourage people to avoid certain youth sports leagues?""

Trenum wrote back to Sawyers in June 2014 saying he had discussed the matter with school board attorney James Fagan, who said Bishop's activities with the baseball league are ""outside of his responsibilities with the school division.""

""To the extent that there may be disagreements within the community, unless there is a school-related nexus, we are limited legally in how we may respond,"" Trenum wrote.

Sawyers and Morgan have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, based on the fact that Bishop remains principal of Patriot High School. The motion also argues that Bishop's complaint ""fails to plead facts sufficient"" to support his claims against the defendants. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 13.

Sawyers said in an interview the lawsuit ""has nothing whatsoever"" to do with his decision to run for school board chairman, which he said he began mulling as early as two years ago.

Sawyers, who has been endorsed by the Prince William Democratic Committee, faces two opponents in the school board chairman's race: Tim Singstock, who has been endorsed by the local Republican Committee, and Tracy Conroy, who is running as an independent.

Current Board Chairman Milt Johns, who has held the office since 2008, announced in December he would not seek re-election to a third term.

Sawyers and his wife, Jaime, have two children, rising fifth- and second-graders who will attend Gravely Elementary School in the fall.

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