George Chidi is a dangerous man, according to Tom Owens.
Owens is a candidate for an open seat on the DeKalb County Commission. Chidi is a new-style journalist/blogger, a guy with the training and skills to dig into a story, coupled with opinions a mile wide, which often find their way into his pieces.
And therein lies the problem for Owens.
Chidi absolutely spanked him in a story this week published on the right-leaning news blog “Peach Pundit,” to which the left-leaning Chidi is a regular contributor. In the story, Chidi dug into arrest records and court filings to portray Owens as an unbalanced individual with a penchant for harassing, stalking and engaging in angry tirades — just the kind of guy who’d make the DeKalb County board even more interesting that it is now.
Shortly before Chidi’s story appeared online, he was served with a temporary protective order, signed by DeKalb Superior Court Judge Nora Polk. It directs him not to get within 100 yards of Owens, based on accusations that he stalked the accused stalker.
One might think it odd that Owens would fear Chidi. Owens is a ramrod, 6-3, 230-pound Vietnam vet with the booming demeanor of a drill sergeant (which he was) and a placard at his home warning that you might discover the afterlife if you trespass. Chidi is a vet, too, although he was an Army journalist, not a grunt, and looks as though he would be overwhelmed in a push-up contest with Owens.
Chidi says the TPO would keep him from attending candidate forums, a real handicap for a news blogger. He has an attorney and is set to challenge the order in court Oct. 22.
Owens is widely viewed in north DeKalb as a local irritant, a fringe, in-your-face activist looking for ways to mix it up with those he believes are corrupt or who have lost their way. In April, he filed an ethics complaint against Commissioner Elaine Boyer, whose spending habits were revealed by a some hard-hitting stories by my AJC colleague Johnny Edwards. Boyer later fessed up to her wrongs and is probably headed to a federal vacation, hence providing the opening on the county commission that Owens is hoping to fill.
The public record fairly bristles with other, more, um, colorful examples of his wide-ranging activism. According to a police report, the owner of a Doraville religious thrift shop told police that Owens accused her of funding terrorists and spit on her door. Another police report has a Doraville councilman accusing Owens of stalking him because council members expressed support for the victims of the Sandy Hook school massacre, a move Owens interpreted as anti-Second Amendment.
But in Owens’ eyes, Chidi is the crackpot.
“All of this is political retribution against me because of my investigation against Elaine Boyer and (her aide) Bob Lundsten; they’re behind it,” Owens told me. “I want people to know that I’m the good guy here.
“George’s sole purpose is to stalk me and do me harm.”
Chidi said he spent so much time researching Owens because candidates like him “are catering to crazy. It’s got to stop; so I wrote about it. Civic engagement has gone to hell. It’s driving off people who want to fix potholes.”
Chidi compiled a stack of documents about Owens and went to two candidate forums to confront him and get his side of the story.
A tape shot by Owens’ crew and posted on the Internet shows Chidi approaching and the candidate, who backs off, saying, “Please don’t call me or talk to me. Please don’t call me or talk to me.”
Owens walked off, leaving a frustrated Chidi loudly calling out, “Mr. Owens, when you were arrested in Forsyth County for stalking, I’m curious, did you ever apologize to your victim?”
The candidate says he’s barred from speaking about the stalking accusation by some sort of confidentiality agreement. But he did say that when he first met Chidi, the blogger told him “I’m going to destroy you.” Chidi says that is ridiculous.
Full disclosure: Chidi worked for the AJC for three years before leaving to get an MBA. When he was hired, I was asked, as an AJC old-timer, to take him to lunch. We were walking across Centennial Olympic Park downtown when he stopped, looked around to soak it all in and then pumped his fists in the air all Rocky-like. “Atlanta! Yes!” he said.
Last year, he was running for the Pine Lake City Council (he won) and I wrote a wisecrack on Facebook about the tiny city’s penchant for writing tickets in the 1990s. Chidi, filled with civic pride, told me — very publicly — to do something not physically possible.
So, yes, George, too, is an excitable boy.
I went to speak with Chidi this week about this weirdness. He sat on his porch telling me the protective order was what’s known in First Amendment law as “prior restraint” (something courts don’t generally tolerate) and an affront to journalism. If it’s allowed to stand, he said, TPOs will be a new tool political candidates will use to bar reporters from writing about them right before elections.
About that time, there was knock on Chidi’s door. It was DeKalb sheriff’s deputies serving a notice that Owens wanted him held in contempt for violating the restraining order. Owens’ new salvo was signed by Judge Richard Foxworth. The document said Chidi violated his TPO by “contacting third parties via social media.”
It turns out that two days earlier, after the TPO was issued, Chidi put a posting online about how absurd it was for a judge to issue a restraining order on behalf of a candidate for public office to keep a reporter away. “Journalism is not a crime” was the headline.
In that moment, the story I was writing had shifted from bizarro-world to down-the-rabbit-hole, off-the-chain crazy.
But this is DeKalb County, after all. So why was I surprised?