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Sen. Sharp awarded attorney fees; Judge imposes $500,000 fine on Epic Charter Schools' nonprofit

by Nuria Martinez-Keel - Gannett Oklahoma

An Oklahoma County district judge leveled a $500,000 fine against the nonprofit overseeing Epic Charter Schools on Wednesday.

Judge Cindy Troung sanctioned Community Strategies Inc. for filing a libel and slander lawsuit against state Sen. Ron Sharp last year. Truong dismissed the lawsuit in February. On Wednesday, she ruled the case was an attempt to censor Sharp's free speech.

The judge decided the nonprofit was subject to a fine under Oklahoma Citizens Participation Act, a law that sanctions plaintiffs who file meritless lawsuits intended to silence critics.

Troung also awarded Sharp $35,912 to cover all of his legal fees. A news release from Sharp said the senator is "very pleased" with the judge's decision.

Epic will appeal the ruling, said Shelly Hickman, assistant superintendent of communications.

"There are multiple reasons why the judge’s rulings are erroneous legally," Hickman said in a statement. "Mr. Sharp has already admitted he lied. We will appeal."

Sharp has not admitted to lying. Rather, he said in a court affidavit that he believed his public statements about Epic were true based on information he learned from other state officials and media reports.

Community Strategies, which oversees Epic, sued Sharp in December for a minimum of $75,000 and argued the state senator knowingly made false and defamatory statements against the virtual charter school system.

Sharp, R-Shawnee, has been one of Epic's most outspoken critics. In multiple news releases and comments to media, he alleged Epic unlawfully counted student enrollment and misused taxpayer dollars.

Truong threw out the lawsuit and said Sharp's public comments about Epic did not rise to the level of actual malice, which is the standard to prove libel and slander against a public entity.

“Clearly, Epic was trying to do this to destroy my credibility and to divert attention from what I was asking,” Sharp said after the lawsuit was dismissed in February. “The fact that they filed this just before the deadline for legislation, they clearly wanted legislators to be intimidated by this lawsuit.”

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation alleged Epic illegally inflated its enrollment counts and embezzled millions in state funds, according to court documents filed last year. Epic has denied any wrongdoing. No charges have been filed.