Tom Owens, A Man Amok

Tom Owens
Tom Owens, candidate for District 1, DeKalb County commission.

(This is a chapter in my unfinished, yet-untitled book about civic participation in Georgia politics. It’s also opposition research madness for those inclined. Enjoy.) 

Tom Owens is what happens when no one gives a damn about local government.

Owens wants to replace Elaine Boyer on the DeKalb County commission, now that’s she has resigned and is going to jail.

Owens is also a man amok.

The 62-year-old Vietnam veteran and anti-immigration activist has a years-long history of legal trouble tied to harassment of political figures, acquaintances and romantic targets. He pleaded no contest to a stalking charge in Forsyth County, with a note in the documentation tying his behavior to mental health issues. At least three people have obtained restraining orders against him in the last eight years, the most recent of which expired this year.

One target of his harassment met me at the door of his home with a gun in hand at the mere mention of Owens’ name.

Owens’ apparent ex-fiancee sued him a few years ago, alleging that he financially abandoned their child in 1995. She told me she dropped the suit in part because he continually ducked service of the subpoena, in part because she was too broke to keep chasing him, and in part because she believed he was probably too broke to cover his obligations in any case. Questions of paternity can be fraught, of course. But given Owens’ stated rationale for his candidacy — integrity — I think this is fair game.

Owens also remains in a long-running legal dispute with a mosque built on property behind his house in Doraville. Filings by the Al Maad Al Islami mosque allege that Owens threatened to kill their imam.

Meanwhile, the head of a Christian religious charity found herself filing a police report less than five months ago, complaining that Owens had come to her to her thrift shop to berate her for her insufficient hate toward African Muslims … spitting on the shop doors while he was at it.

Were any of this isolated stuff, it might be ignored. And I might otherwise write off Owens’ run as the delusion of a fringe candidate in any case. It would be easy.

The north DeKalb Republican political establishment has lined up behind former school board member Nancy Jester. She faces former county planning commissioner and attorney Wendy Butler, retired engineer (and two-time Boyer-challenger) Larry Danese and Holmes E. Pyles, an 86-year-old retired civil servant running as an independent.

“Anyone has the right to run for public office,” said State Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican. “I respect Mr. Owens’ service to his country. However, I do not consider him a viable candidate for this position.”

But too many voters have abandoned DeKalb politics to the mendacious and the mad. The AJC and other media outlets have no spare capacity to dive into a local race. A superficially-observed local election leaves Owens with a puncher’s chance in a fight, since a five-way race could go to a thinly-attended December runoff. And the sheer length and breadth of the complaints against Owens merit a word or two. Or a few thousand.

Thomas Mitchell Owens, if nothing else, has a keen sense of self-promotion. He has theatrically leafleted and harangued public figures on far-right anti-immigration issues for years, drawing himself into favor with the more zealous activists in the state. Owens is also a Vietnam vet who rejoined the Army at 55, as perhaps the oldest enlistee in Army history, drawing some Google-able media attention. But he’s plainly hoping to capitalize on his current claim to fame as Boyer’s principal accuser before the county’s ethics board.

Never mind, of course, that his accusations largely consisted of repeating claims made by a very expensive Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation. Let us please forget that Boyer resigned because the FBI had her dead to rights. His name’s on the dotted line on an ethics case.

That was enough to earn the praise of Governor Nathan Deal at a veteran’s event a couple weeks ago. “Well, Tom, I want to thank you for your diligence and your persistence as a citizen to make sure that everyone is held accountable, especially when they’re dealing with taxpayer funds and taxpayer resources,” Deal said while Owens’ cameraperson captured the scene. “You have set a great example of the kind of way that it should be done in a proper and efficient manner, and I congratulate you on that.”

It seems Owens snuck one by the governor’s team at the event. Owens’ friend and fellow Boyer complainant Joe Newton had staked out the post-event reception with a video camera, said Deal spokeswoman Jennifer Talaber. “This is not an endorsement and this was not about Elaine Boyer.” As Owens approached, Newton told the governor that the guy started a P-Card abuse investigation and asked him to comment on it, she said. “There was no mention of him replacing her or endorsing his candidacy at all.”

And, of course, Owens’ site carefully avoids saying anything more than that.

Owens has been good at finding the limelight. NPR covered his reenlistment in 2008 as a 55-year-old, 6-foot-3, 230-pound Army Reserve specialist. Owens first served in the Army in Vietnam as a 17-year-old. He was pushed out of the active duty Army during a reduction in force in the ’80s, before earning a full 20-year retirement, and then again from the reserves in a second RIF. But when the Army raised the enlistment age during the Iraq War, his prior service allowed him to re-up.

“I didn’t join the army to be behind a desk somewhere,” Owens told NPR. “My intention is to be on the front lines with them supporting the war effort the best I can.”

His reserve unit – an ammo company in north Georgia — subsequently deployed without him, his former company commander Thomas Boswick told me, saying little more. Owens retired from the Army for good shortly after, presumably leaving him with a pension and free time on his hands to annoy reasonable people.

The highest-profile example of this might be Owens’ ongoing suit with a  mosque built on land adjacent to his home in Doraville. Owens accused the mosque and associated school of “excessive noise, traffic, sanitary and stormwater backups or overflows, and state of disrepair” that has damaged his own abutting property.

But at heart, the dispute looks like it’s about money.

Zillow pegs Owens’ home on Beacon Drive in Doraville, near the Home Depot, at about $100,000 today. Al Maad Al Islami claims the house was probably worth less than $75,000 when they offered $150,000 for it.

Owens refused. His counteroffer was $500,000, according to the mosque’s filings.

When Al Maad Al Islami refused the crazy bingo counter, Owens “became belligerent, hostile and threatening,” according to the mosque’s countersuit. Owens began agitating for code enforcement to cite the mosque. The mosque was eminently cite-able, to be clear, but Owens called often enough for code enforcement to ask him to knock it off. And when code enforcement quit returning his calls, he began haranguing them in public.

“We don’t need any more code enforcement people, not to hire any more,” Owens said at a recent forum in Dunwoody. “I go down there in my investigation and half of them are sleeping in their vehicles down in Decatur.”

Owens called WSB and Jodie Fleischer for some traditional hit-and-run TV coverage that plays well to the anti-immigration set. The supposedly “investigative” story highlights the code enforcement issues. She interviewed Tom Owens while he apparently was wearing his military uniform. Fleischer says nothing about Owens’ financial stake in the case. That would have required reporting.

“Someone is harassing us, and you’re helping him,” an imam told the news reporter at his door.

The mosque’s counterclaim alleges that Owens “threatened to kill the Imam of the mosque,” a charge Owens denied in filings. Owens has claimed the opposite according to police records — that the imam threatened to kill him. They’ve been back and forth in court ever since.

Zubair Faridi, a member of the mosque who filed a police report in March 2012 alleging harassment by Owens, said they’ve done whatever they could to accommodate him. “We’ve treated him as a neighbor, and we want a relationship. We try to make him comfortable, and we’ve been very open with him. He said he wanted to sell his property. We gave him an offer that’s above fair market value.” His tone suggested deep irritation – exasperation, really, about the dispute, along with concerns about drawing more harassment by speaking openly about Owens’ behavior.

Despite the vitriol, Faridi remained philosophical.

“I always wish him well,” he said. “It’s part of my faith.”

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15 comments

  1. gcp says:

    Electing candidates with personal problems usually results in elected politicians with problems.

    Examples: Sherry Barnes Sutton domestic and financial issues, Stan Watson involved in a bizarre incident a couple years ago at a Glenwood bar where he accused a female of stealing his wallet, bankruptcy of the current interim CEO and of course Elaine Boyer and her crimes.

    Conclusion: If you can’t run your own life you should not be in public office.

  2. tomowensfordekalb says:

    “Although the author of this article has misrepresented the truth about me personally, my military service and about my intentions behind my pursuing the end of corruption and unlawfulness in DeKalb, he is correct that “…too many voters have abandoned DeKalb politics to the mendacious and the mad. The AJC and other media outlets have no spare capacity to dive into a local race. A superficially-observed local election leaves Owens with a puncher’s chance in a fight, since a five-way race could go to a thinly-attended December runoff.”

    So, I want to personally encourage everyone to VOTE on November 4th. Take a look at my website http://www.tomowensfordekalb.com and if you have questions, please message me and I will be happy to provide truthful information about my background and intentions from the source.”

    • objective says:

      if you feel misrepresented, you have the opportunity to address the substance of the problems raised right here.

  3. DAinGA says:

    Really great piece. And it is also very true that these people drive out the sane and thoughtful from local politics and yet when they get in, they are extremely thin skinned about anything. And this happens around the metro area. Look at Morrow right now, look at East Point a few years ago with their Mayor, the current Snellville Mayor, the former Mayor of Stockbridge. Zealots NEVER make good leaders.

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    I attended a candidate forum in north DeKalb a couple of weeks ago that included the candidates for Commissioner. It was discouraging, but that’s what we’ve come to expect in DeKalb.

    I thought Jester made the best impression, but her touting involvement with Americans for Prosperity precludes a vote from me for her.

  5. PegM says:

    For years, I have watched the damning duo of Owens/Newton on any variety of topics they get a wild hair about. They switch off their roles depending on the mood they are in…one day Newton is the rabble rouser, with Owens doing the flyers, and vice versa. Both are odd ducks, who serious people don’t take seriously….but do so at some peril. Neither of them have any redeeming social value, but they think they are doing something for a cause….their’s. You can’t win with fanatics. And you can’t even suffer them gladly….they just piss you off.

  6. Cinderella says:

    Mr. Newton, this information is supported by documentation and statements from witnesses (or should I say “victims”). What part of this do you think Mr. Chidi is lying about??

    And Mr. Owens, you know that there is more, much more, that could be said about your unacceptable behavior. You should have known that when one chooses to run for public office, very little is off-limits, and is fairly accessible. So you shouldn’t be surprised about being exposed as a hypocrite, claiming to be a dragon slayer of corruption when your own behavior is criminal and repulsive.

    Actually, I think Mr. Chidi was rather easy on you. Personally, I wish the both of you would disappear.

  7. ChuckRozenkranz says:

    I am posting here due to the great piece regarding Mr. Owen’s lunacy that was printed in Sunday’s AJC. Bells, whistles, sirens and grenades went off when we saw “Joe Newton” mentioned in the article, which led me to this posting. Just an FYI to DeKalb voters, we know Joe quite well in Gwinnett County. I believe him to be one of the vilest pieces of political scum that I’ve met in my many years in Gwinnett. Several years ago we worked with the campaign of a County Commissioner against the incumbent Chairman for his seat. We had seen some sleaze in our political lifetimes, but nothing like this. Joe had a one-person PAC (later declared illegal by the state) that was apparently (note: he had filed for bankruptcy in the past, was living in a not lavish neighborhood and claimed to be retired) funneling cash into Joe’s campaign efforts by way of a well-funded “the opponent is evil incarnate” strategy. His actions were reprehensible, underhanded and disgusting at best. When Joe attacked the County Sheriff for making TV spots on behalf of the candidate, it was discovered that Joe had a 62 page (publically available) “rap sheet” spanning everything from speeding tickets to misdemeanor petty crimes to felony assault.

    The aftermath of these particular efforts of Joe’s included a re-elected but now “resigned in lieu of grand jury perjury charges” Chairman and another Commissioner “currently vacationing in federal prison for bribery.” My bet here is that Joe is again acting as a paid political hit man and that the utmost care should be exercised here. Basically, he will do just about anything, and sometimes his filthy tactics work. I rarely judge people by the company they keep, but in this case I cannot help but to be quite certain that Mr. Owens is either incapable of recognizing evil or has welcomed it as a means of winning an election. In either case, I’d suggest voting for a doorknob if he is your only choice.

  8. Buncy says:

    I got into this fascinating 6-page article by surfing around after reading about the restraining order, obviously unconstitutional, against Mr. Chidi. So my point of entry was at Volokh Conspiracy.

    I live in Western North Carolina and we have a few of those Owens/Newton characters here. What is particularly troubling to me as a retired lawyer with First Amendment experience (and being myself the victim of the ubiquitous frivolous and malicious restraining order) is that the judge awarded a temporary restraining order to Owens against Chidi, based on a complete lack of allegations which would cause one to conclude that Owens was being stalked within the meaning of Georgia law. This practice of legislating from the bench and issuing a sort of judicial bill of attainder without cause may be trendy. But it is dangerous to our Constitutional democracy; and it goes on everywhere, as if the judiciary believe they have that power and are intent on micro-managing speech and communications, something forbidden by the Bill of Rights and ample caselaw from the appellate courts.

    It seems to me that the entire citizenry of the county should apply for and receive a protection order against Tom Owens. He is a dangerous wack.

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