It was supposed to be a county budget meeting in Chattooga County, Georgia, last Friday – but before it could even begin, the county commissioner’s wife stormed in and dumped a soda on a reporter’s head.
The shocking moment, captured partially on video, stunned the room into silence. Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Jason Winters’ jaw dropped. He uttered, “Oh, God.” Another voice said: “There you go. I’m sick of it” – and Winters appeared to nod his head in agreement at his wife’s actions.
Meanwhile, the reporter sat, drenched, at the table, saying nothing.
“Oh, that’s classy!” a taxpayer attending the meeting yelled at Winters’ wife, Abbey Winters, according to footage of the budget meeting from AllOnGeorgia.com.
The wife of Chattooga County's sole commissioner poured a soda on a reporter's head this morning. The Summerville PD is charging Abbey Winters with simple battery and disorderly conduct. The reporter is Casie Bryant of All On Georgia. Photos courtesy of the Summerville News pic.twitter.com/V3pz6UbWY8
— Patrick Filbin (@PatrickFilbin) December 13, 2019
Abbey Winters has since been charged with simple battery and disorderly conduct in the bizarre soda attack on AllOnGeorgia reporter Casie Bryant, which witnesses told police appeared to be completely unprovoked. People and reporters attending the meeting said they could hear Abbey Winters say “You deserve that” just after dumping the drink on Bryant’s head, according to the police report and the Summerville News, which was at the meeting. Bryant, 39, said nothing in response but calmly got up and left the room as the soda dripped down her face and onto her coat, witnesses said.
An attorney for Abbey Winters, 35, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did the commissioner. But according to the police report, Abbey Winters told Summerville, Georgia, police that she had “accidentally” poured the drink on Bryant’s head “after stumbling/tripping near her.”
Jason Winters, who oversees the county budget for a population of about 25,000 in Chattooga County, in northwest Georgia, was elected to the seat in 2008. He also claimed his wife’s spill was an accident but maintained Bryant “deserved what happened to her,” according to WZQZ.
“What happened at the budget meeting [Friday] was completely inappropriate, and I’m disappointed to see not only the behavior of those involved, but the excuses made for the behavior after the fact,” Delvis Dutton, owner of AllOnGeorgia, said in a statement to the news outlet on Friday. “The media plays an integral role in ensuring transparency, and these types of antics are dangerous to open government and a disservice to the people it serves.”
Bryant declined to comment.
The incident comes amid mounting concerns about hostility toward the press starting at the highest levels of government, with President Donald Trump’s frequent cries of “fake news,” and trickling down to local news. This year, reporters have been threatened with arrest in Wisconsin if they failed to print a government news release word-for-word and in full (a resolution later rescinded), and have been threatened in Oregon with a criminal investigation for harassment for calling county employees on their personal cellphones (an investigation soon abandoned). Since 2017, 55 reporters have been attacked while covering protests, including one who was assaulted by a Trump supporter during a campaign rally, according to U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Trump’s broadsides against the press, both at his rallies and on Twitter, typically come in response to critical reports that he does not like.
But in Bryant’s case, there was no critical story precipitating the allegedly accidental attack. There was just a Facebook post. In a post provided to The Washington Post, Bryant wrote of Jason Winters the night before the meeting, “Fresh off his trip to Paris, he’s ready to talk about the budget to the PUBLIC.”
Jason Espy, a reporter for the Summerville News, told WTVC that he had seen rumors floating around social media regarding the commissioner’s recent trip to France. But while he stressed his paper had so far not found any evidence supporting the rumors, he added that it was normal for journalists to be given tips about public officials’ finances to consider investigating. “I don’t know of a single commission, municipality, or board of education, probably nationwide, that is immune to rumors about financial impropriety,” he told WTVC.
In an interview with the station, Paula Arden, a high school teacher who attended the budget meeting, identified one Facebook comment on Bryant’s page imploring the journalist to look into the France trip, suspecting it may have angered Jason and Abbey Winters: “After all he has NOT done for our county I find it ridiculous that he can afford fancy trips,” the commenter wrote in part.
The exact cause of Winters’ alleged outburst is unclear, as Bryant did not actually ask about the Paris trip during the meeting nor did she write anything about it. A review of her recent coverage shows Bryant has written largely positive stories about Chattooga schools and sports over the past month.
But on the video, the following exchange can be heard among several women:
“She brought it on herself,” one says.
“Nobody brings that on themselves,” says another.
And a third: “By saying that he went to France?”
“Oh, yes, b—-,” comes the response.
Arden called the incident “the most classless act I have ever witnessed in my whole life, and I’ve been a lot of places.”
“Casie just sat there – in fact we all were shocked,” Arden told WTVC. “Mrs. Winters started to say, ‘She deserved that! She deserved that and more!’ I said, ‘Nobody deserves that.’ ”
A witness called police, but Jason and Abbey Winters declined to speak with officers until consulting with their attorney, Chris Corbin, who is also the county attorney. Later, in Corbin’s presence, they told police that Abbey tripped.
When police visited Bryant, they found her sitting in her car in the parking lot, still drenched in dark-colored soda. They said her account matched that of several witnesses.
“Victim further stated that for a few moments after the drink was poured on her she was just in shock,” police wrote in their report, “and that she recalled someone stating that the drink looked good on her.”
Abbey Winters turned herself into the Chattooga County Jail on Friday afternoon and was released on $1,520 property bond.
In her mug shot, she is grinning.
MUGSHOT RELEASED: NewChannel 9 was provided the mugshot of Abbey Winters. Winters is a Chattooga County Commissioners wife accused of spilling a drink on a reporters head during a budget meeting.
MORE HERE: https://t.co/mr1VG1sHsQ pic.twitter.com/0EVQsavmbF
— WTVC NewsChannel 9 (@newschannelnine) December 14, 2019