Infighting in the state GOP spilled into the legal arena Wednesday when an ousted county executive committee chairman filed a lawsuit against the Republican Party chairwoman and Secretary of State.
Rob Cornelius, a Republican operative and political provocateur, filed suit in Kanawha County Circuit Court seeking a judge to force Secretary of State Mac Warner to recognize him as the chairman of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee.
The lawsuit is the latest episode of a months-long rumpus between Cornelius and GOP Chairwoman Melody Potter, whom he has described as a “prostitute” of conservative values — namely in her support of Gov. Jim Justice.
In the suit, Cornelius says he won election to the committee on the ballot in May 2018, and the committee voted him as its chairman a month later. Potter, he argues, had no right to remove him under state law or party bylaws.
“Two months ago I was illegally removed from office, elected by the people in my neighborhood [and] in my county, and elected again to be the head of the body,” Cornelius said in an interview. “Clearly you cannot nullify an election with power from an outside body that doesn’t seem to exist in law.”
In earlier correspondence with Potter, provided via records request, Warner’s office said it’s outside its purview to act as a referee and consider whether Potter had the right to oust Cornelius. The office took a more clerical position, stating it has no choice but to accept the roster the party chairwoman provides at face value.
Donald Kersey, general counsel for the office, declined to comment on the substance of Cornelius’ lawsuit.
“The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office is looking forward to quick resolution on this matter,” he said.
Potter explained her decision in a letter to members of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee accusing Cornelius of “multiple acts of constant disunity” and for referring to her as a “prostitute” on Twitter on several occasions.
She cited a provision in GOP bylaws that allows the chairwoman to resolve “issues in controversy” by taking action in the best interest of the party if she deems “time is of the essence.”
The spat between Potter and Cornelius dates back to at least February, when Cornelius criticized Potter for using the party to support Justice’s reelection bid. Cornelius regularly takes to his blog and webcam (he self-identifies in the videos as “Total Patriot”) to disseminate leaked phone conversations of what he says are Potter insulting the governor and to otherwise foment opposition to Potter’s leadership.
“She must go,” he wrote in February “She can go quietly, she can go loudly. Rest assured, she will go.”
Potter did not respond to an interview request. Speaking to WV MetroNews, she declined to comment, but said she stood by her decision to remove Cornelius.
Anthony Majestro, a Charleston lawyer who practices election law, is representing Cornelius in the matter. He said the matter is fairly simple.
“Rob was elected to serve as a member of the West Virginia Republican Executive Committee by the voters in Wood County,” he said. “Melody Potter, who is the chairman of the State Republican Executive Committee, doesn’t believe he should hold that position and has unilaterally taken action to remove him. We don’t believe that’s proper, and that he should return to his position.”
Majestro is a member and former president of the Association for Justice, a trial lawyers group often aligned with Democratic politics.
Cornelius said the lawsuit itself isn’t personal, but acknowledged his spat with the chairwoman.
“In terms of Melody Potter, it’s clear she’s demonstrated she’s not the right person to lead the Republican Party, and she’s shown that by her temperament, and her actions, and her attachment to a crooked governor, and now she’ll have to be judged on these choices,” he said.
The party, under previous leadership, attempted to oust Cornelius before. In 2015, the county Republican Executive Committee tried unsuccessfully to remove Cornelius as county chairman after he played a role in getting the Democratic mayor to resign, allegedly threatened a process server with a baseball bat and accused a Wood County legislator’s wife of assault.