On August 31, 2017, Martin Chitwood, a high-profile attorney from Atlanta, was exonerated on all claims of domestic abuse made by his former wife, Carol Swanson Chitwood and her Los Angeles attorney, Lisa Bloom of the Bloom Firm. After a five-week trial involving dozens of allegations of domestic violence brought by Carol Chitwood, the 12-person jury concluded that Martin had not committed a single act of domestic violence, rendering a verdict 100% in his favor. This marked the end of a saga that had begun three years earlier when, unbeknownst to Martin, Carol called the police to report a false claim of domestic abuse against him.
At approximately noon on Wednesday August 13, 2014, Martin Chitwood left his beautiful home in La Jolla, California to get some lunch at a nearby restaurant. When he left, he had no idea it would be more than nine months before he would be able to spend another night in his home, and that he would not have access to his physical possessions during that period. He would never get back many of the things he left there, including those things he treasured most dearly. He would lose all his photographs, including the only ones of his parents, his business records, and most of his memorabilia. He would also have to leave behind his two white golden retrievers who were his best friends.
The morning of August 13th started simply enough. Martin, who was a practicing attorney in Atlanta, was 70 years old and nearing retirement. The La Jolla house was a vacation home, and it was where Martin planned to retire. Martin’s wife Carol, who was 19 years younger, had gotten up early to drive her friend who had been visiting them to the airport. After drinking a cup of coffee, Martin worked out with his personal trainer at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. But his world would change when he returned. His wife started an argument over whether he had fully participated in entertaining her friend during her visit. It struck Martin that Carol was unusually aggressive. They had had arguments before—their marriage of 5 years wasn’t working out. However, the argument that morning had a different tone. Carol asked Martin if he was going to divorce her, and he replied that he couldn’t live with someone who could never tell the truth—a factor that had been the primary catalyst for almost all of their disagreements. While her friend was visiting Carol had a birthday visit, and during the argument, Carol also asked Martin why he hadn’t gotten her a more suitable birthday card. Tired from having worked out and exasperated by what he thought was an unnecessary argument, Martin responded, “because I just don’t like you.” As Carol walked away, ending the argument, she said, “You need to remember what happened to your broke friend.” Martin didn’t understand her comment at the time, but he would soon realize what she meant.
The day before, Martin had gotten a notice from his bank that a bill was due, and when he tried to log on to pay it, he was notified that his password had been changed. When he attempted to reset his password, he discovered that his personal security questions had also been changed. Martin was initially alarmed, but other than himself, only Carol knew what the answers to those questions had been, and he assumed the issue was a bank error that he and Carol would straighten out once her friend had left.
After their argument that morning, the rest of their morning was uneventful. Martin watched the financial news and played with the dogs, and Carol sat at her computer and shopped online. Just after noon, Martin decided to go out for his fateful lunch and asked Carol if she would like to join him, but she said she preferred to eat at home. So Martin went to lunch alone.
When Martin returned from lunch, there was a police car in his driveway. The Chitwoods had a construction project underway on the roof of their home, and Martin was concerned someone had been hurt. He approached the police officer, explained that he lived there, and asked if there had been an accident on the roof. The police officer replied that Carol had called 911 and reported that Martin had committed domestic violence, and he would have to arrest him. Martin was taken to a police station and booked, and then he was eventually put in a jail cell in downtown San Diego with approximately two-dozen other men. Martin was the oldest person in the jail cell, and he was the only one who didn’t sit down all night. Instead, he paced in the cell trying to figure out what had happened to him. As he went over everything in his mind, he would come to understand what his wife had meant when she said, “You need to remember what happened to your broke friend.”
Martin had a friend who had gone through a tumultuous divorce a few years earlier. Martin had been friends with him since 1962, when they lived in the same dorm as freshmen at the University of Georgia. They were both attorneys in Atlanta, and both were avid tennis players. As part of a bitter custody dispute, the wife of Martin’s friend had claimed that her husband had been physically abusive toward her and had molested their children. While their divorce was still pending, Martin’s friend found a letter hidden in a drawer that his wife had received from her attorney prior to initiating the divorce. The letter explained to her that the way she could assure she would get the house during a divorce was to allege domestic violence. As part of her claim of domestic violence, the friend’s wife accused him of marital rape, and with the help of her attorney she filed criminal charges against him with the District Attorney. Marital rape is a felony, and if Martin’s friend were convicted of those charges, he would not only face prison time, he would also lose his license to practice law, which was his only way to earn a living. Bound by the circumstances, Martin’s friend settled his divorce case on his wife’s terms, and he had ongoing financial obligations to her that were both much more than what he thought they should be and what they would have been but for her false allegations.
After Martin and Carol were married, they socialized with this friend on a few occasions. During those get-togethers, his friend sometimes vetted frustration over the financial plight he found himself in because of his wife’s false allegations in their divorce. Carol was an avid listener.
As Martin paced about in the jail cell following his arrest, he suddenly knew what Carol had meant the day before when she said, “You need to remember what happened to your broke friend.”
The next morning after posting bond, Martin immediately contacted his banker to change his password and cancel his credit cards, realizing the changes to his bank account that were inexplicable the day before were much more serious than he originally thought. Next, he called an attorney in Atlanta and instructed her to file suit for divorce as soon as possible. He then returned home just long enough to pack a small suitcase with toiletry items and three changes of clothing and booked a flight back to Atlanta. Martin had recently sold his home in Atlanta while vacationing in La Jolla, so he checked into an Atlanta hotel. He would live in a hotel for the next several weeks until he could find a suitable house to rent.
Prior to their marriage, Martin and Carol had entered into a prenuptial agreement that they agreed would govern how they would divide certain property in the event of divorce. Alleging severe unforeseen domestic violence was a theoretical way for one party to break the agreement and get more from a divorce than the prenuptial agreement would allow, but it was believed the allegations would have to be so extreme so as to shock the conscience of the court.
Soon after Carol answered the divorce complaint by admitting irreconcilable differences through her initial Atlanta attorney, she also retained Lisa Bloom, a high-profile Los Angeles attorney who is head of the Bloom Firm, which specializes in claims against public personalities, setting into motion a dramatic shift in Carol’s litigation strategy. From that point forward, the proceedings took a sharp turn down a tortuous path that was reminiscent of the plot in the motion picture “Gone Girl.” Bloom, who like her mother, Gloria Allred, is known for trying to coerce settlements, seeks out the support of the press to bolster her claims against public figures, including celebrities like songwriter and performer Usher. Bloom has a reputation for exploiting both her clients and the press to advance her cases, and she would not allow her representation of Carol to be any different.
A business model of Bloom is to seek retention by a client willing to state lurid and sensational claims against a public personality and to promote her cases to the media, particularly the fringe press, in the hope they will be willing to publicize her cases for her and help her force an early settlement. In some cases, Bloom encourages her clients to develop as many allegations as they can (real or imagined) to denigrate the defendant, including non-actionable accusations involving other subjects. In Martin’s case, she actually attempted to paint him as unstable simply because he was a decorated Special Forces (Green Beret) A-team commander in Vietnam, implying that instability was an automatic adjunct to such service. Bloom knows that a lawsuit alleging such sensational claims will likely take two or three years or longer to resolve in the court system, and that during that time publicity about the claims—even though they may be completely fraudulent—will wreck the reputation and business of the person accused. Indeed, Bloom’s firm, which advertises a specialty in reputation management, has the skill and resources to negatively manage the reputations of the persons they sue as a litigation strategy. By making the allegations absurdly severe, and insuring they are constantly in the media, Bloom can reasonably expect to receive a settlement offer from the person accused who must take steps to save his career and reputation before a trial can be held. To make matters worse, there is no evidence that Bloom does any due diligence on her clients’ background or the veracity of their claims before making them public. Significantly, Carol had struggled with psychological disorders throughout her adult life, and one of her symptoms was a willingness to fabricate stories, a characteristic that was the major factor in the breakdown of her marriage. Fortunately, Carol’s penchant for creating stories was easy to detect because her stories had inconsistencies, and she would quickly and implausibly revise her stories when inconsistencies were pointed out to her. Any well-meaning attorney who interviewed Carol would discern that what she needed was additional psychiatric help and that no good could come from litigating her false claims, but Bloom saw the promise of a big settlement payday.
Almost immediately after Bloom was hired, she took her first step toward extorting a settlement by pursuing a needless restraining order against Martin in San Diego County, where Carol remained after Martin filed for divorce, though it served no legitimate purpose since Martin was living in Atlanta, some 2,000 miles away. Though Martin would stipulate to a restraining order since he was not a resident of California, Bloom asked the court to require Martin to pay her firm nearly $270,000 in attorneys’ fees for work she claimed her firm had undertaken in pursuing the restraining order. In response to Bloom’s request for approval of her ludicrous bill, the court found that the “request for fees and costs in the amount of $269,003.59 is grossly excessive and unreasonable under the circumstance,” and approved only $35,000 in fees and costs, which included fees incurred by Carol’s prior attorney.
Concurrent with needlessly pursuing a restraining order, Bloom convinced her client to fire the reasonable Georgia attorney she had initially retained and hire Jeff Bogart, an Atlanta attorney with a reputation for being overly aggressive and even reckless. Bogart shared Bloom’s goal of preventing the enforcement of the prenuptial agreement. Martin’s legal team soon began to refer to the team of Bloom and Bogart by the portmanteau, “Blogart,” because of their similarities in character, appearance, and demeanor.
Bloom also implored the San Diego City Attorney and the San Diego District Attorney to arrest Martin and press charges against him for the allegations Carol made. After separate investigations, both declined, and the District Attorney’s office issued a public statement that its decision reflected the belief that it could not carry its burden of proof. However, Bloom was undeterred that law enforcement officials could find no provable basis for indictment even in the liberal climate for domestic violence allegations that existed in California.
The prenuptial agreement that Carol had decided to challenge was drafted in Georgia, and it stipulated that Georgia law would apply. In Georgia, a prenuptial agreement can be set aside if sufficient circumstances developed during the marriage that the moving party could not have foreseen at the time the agreement was signed. For the unforeseeable circumstances to be sufficient, Carol’s team believed such circumstances would have to be so severe as to shock the conscience of the court. Therefore, acting on the advice of Bloom and Bogart, Carol—five months after Martin filed for divorce—alleged for the first time that he had committed such extreme acts of domestic violence during their marriage that they were sufficient to set aside the agreement.
In January 2015, about a month after Carol hired Bogart at Bloom’s prompting, Bogart filed a set of affidavits on Carol’s behalf in the Georgia court where the divorce was pending, seeking to set aside the prenuptial agreement. Of the nine affidavits, all had been drafted or edited by the Bloom and Bogart consortium. One of the affidavits, signed by Carol herself, became known to Martin’s attorneys as the “Shock & Awe” affidavit because it was conspicuously designed to shock the conscience of the court. It was 35 pages long and full of lurid and fantastical details, including multiple allegations of anal rape and attempted murder. The other affidavits all came from family or friends of Carol. Significantly, when the jury reached its verdict more than two years later, it implicitly found that information contained in the affidavits was untruthful.
Notwithstanding the plethora of new, horrifying, and sensationalized allegations in the Shock & Awe affidavit, the court enforced the prenuptial agreement, holding that only unforeseen changes in the financial conditions of the parties could be sufficient to set aside the agreement. After the prenuptial agreement was enforced, Carol still had the option to file a separate suit for domestic violence, and Bloom shamelessly utilized the trumped-up allegations set out in the affidavits that had been developed to shock the Georgia court to file such a civil case in California. In April 2015, two months after the enforcement of the prenuptial agreement, Bloom initiated a suit in the San Diego County Superior Court, tracking the lurid, contrived claims that were in Carol’s Shock & Awe affidavit, including the outrageous and unsupportable allegations of anal rape and attempted murder. At the time of the filing, the divorce was also still proceeding in Atlanta. (Ultimately the parties’ divorce was finalized in May 2016.)
Working on a contingency fee, Bloom pursued her business model of making outrageous claims against public figures and publicizing them to force a settlement. However, for her to take the next step in her model, she had to recruit a willing accomplice in the press. She soon found that accomplice in the Daily Report, which had its own motivation to run a story involving allegations of domestic violence. The Daily Report, a self-described tabloid published in Atlanta with a weekday circulation to the local legal and real estate communities, is owned by ALM (formerly American Lawyer Media), which also owns several national publications, and Bloom knew the national publications would likely reprint a sensational article from the Daily Report. Both Bloom and the Daily Report knew that such an article could, and likely would, ruin Martin’s career, as well as his stellar reputation in the Atlanta community where his friends and family members lived. But they also knew that such a sensational story would spur reader interest. Sure enough, five months after Bloom filed the California domestic violence action, the Daily Report would run a “bombshell” front-page story reporting Carol’s allegations against Martin in Atlanta where Martin lived and practiced law. While the article was a cringe-worthy character assassination piece premised on Carol’s false accusations—and Bloom’s purported validation of those accusations—it concluded with a karmic quote from Bloom herself: ”…ultimately, the jury is going to see through all of this.” Ironically, her quote would be the only thing in the article that either Bloom or the Daily Report got completely right.
On June 2, 2015—two months to the day after Bloom filed her suit in San Diego, and three months before the article came out—Martin received an email from Robin McDonald, a reporter for the Daily Report. In the email McDonald stated she “needed” to talk to Martin about a story she was writing involving allegations of domestic violence that had surfaced in the divorce litigation. She also asked him to call her.
Following her email, she and Martin had a few telephone conversations. In those conversations, McDonald informed Martin that she had spoken with both Bloom and Carol, that she was aware of the claims in the San Diego litigation, and that the Daily Report was going to run a story about their allegations in the suits. She further said the Daily Report planned to publish the article imminently, and she wanted to give him a chance to comment on it. During the same period, McDonald also spoke with Marvin Solomiany, Martin’s principal attorney in the divorce litigation. Following those conversations, Solomiany arranged for an off-the-record meeting with McDonald in the Atlanta office of his law firm, Kessler & Solomiany, LLC. The meeting, held on June 8, 2015, was attended by Mr. Solomiany and an associate in his firm, Martin, and Krissi Gore, a partner in Martin’s law firm. Paul Pfingst and Susan Hack, Martin’s attorneys for the San Diego litigation, attended by phone. Before the meeting, both Solomiany and Martin informed McDonald that the plaintiff’s claims in the litigation were fraudulent and promised to show her the evidence to prove it. In return, McDonald promised to come to the meeting with an open mind. However, discovery that would later be produced in the San Diego litigation showed that McDonald’s mind was made up well before she attended the meeting. McDonald, with the support of her superiors, had already made the decision that not only would the Daily Report cover the case, it would sensationalize it. The Daily Report would do what it could to insure the case would be pursued, and in doing so would act to try to substitute itself for the prosecutors, the judges, and ultimately the jury that would make decisions about the case.
Martin and his attorneys brought hundreds of pages of documents to the meeting that refuted the plaintiff’s claims. During the meeting, they walked McDonald through affidavits, emails, travel itineraries, charge receipts, medical reports, photographs, and other documents that established—one by one—that Carol’s claims were not true. In some instances, the documents showed that Martin was not with Carol at the time she claimed domestic violence had taken place. In other instances, the documents showed the parties were at dinner or with friends at the time plaintiff alleged the parties were alone and domestic violence had occurred. Still more documents showed that injuries the plaintiff alleged to have suffered because of domestic violence were instead caused at other times and by events completely independent of Martin.
During the meeting, McDonald appeared to be fixated on a particular claim because Bloom and Carol had provided her with a disturbing photograph of Carol with facial injuries they claimed were caused by Martin. However, various emails, witness statements, medical reports, and even Carol’s own deposition testimony established conclusively that the injuries depicted in the photograph occurred when Carol fainted and fell, and that Martin had not been with her when it happened. In addition, emails and witness testimony showed that in Carol’s own words, Martin had been a “prince” by insuring she got proper medical care, including having her cut sewn up by a plastic surgeon and sitting with her in a hospital emergency room while she had diagnostic testing that showed she had no residual injury.
During the meeting with McDonald, Martin informed her that he learned during the marriage that Carol had been diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder before he met her and pointed McDonald to deposition testimony with regard to it. When McDonald later emailed him that the article was about to run, Martin asked if she had considered the deposition testimony, but McDonald did not respond to his question. In view of the nature of the allegations, reporting that Carol had a diagnosis of an anti-social personality disorder would have been extremely relevant; however, the article ran without mentioning it. Discovery in the San Diego case would later disclose that Carol had been in therapy and on medication for various psychiatric conditions for decades predating her relationship with Martin.
Despite that McDonald had conclusive evidence that Martin was not the cause of Carol’s fall for which she had the lurid photograph, the Daily Report nevertheless ran an article titled “Lawyer’s Divorce Reveals Abuse Claims,” showing a photo of Carol and Martin together at a dinner with the lurid photo depicting Carol’s facial injuries superimposed on top of it. The deceitful juxtaposition of the photos with the article title was heightened by the filter effects used on the photograph to make it appear as if it had been taken in a police station, rather than in Carol’s plastic surgeon’s office.
The article, which was published during the pendency of both the Georgia divorce and the San Diego litigation, was one-sided by design, and it was obvious that the reporter and her editors very carefully exploited the liberal limits of journalistic privilege. The story presented Carol’s claims in the first part of the article—the same claims that Martin and his attorneys had proved to the reporter to be false—and buried incomplete information refuting those claims in misleading presentations at the end of the article. Further, though Martin had gotten favorable rulings from the court on several important issues, the article either misreported them or attributed them to purported judicial prejudice against Carol. By blatant implication, the article accused the judges in both the Atlanta and San Diego cases of being biased against women who pursued domestic violence claims in a transparent attempt to influence the judges’ future decisions. The article did not disclose that all four judges who made rulings in the cases, whether in Atlanta or San Diego, were women. The article also ran quotes by so-called “experts” on domestic violence in California—to whom the reporter had been referred by Bloom—who made general statements about domestic violence situations as if they applied to Carol’s allegations, though they clearly did not. In addition to serving the Daily Report’s financial agenda to please her editors and helping her apparent new friend Carol, McDonald no doubt wanted to be seen as a woman at the forefront for reporting domestic violence issues. However, by promoting the prosecution of an innocent person fraudulently accused of committing domestic violence and publicizing it, she would create credibility issues for any woman who would make such claims going forward.
After the article was published, Marvin Solomiany wrote a well-reasoned letter to the editor of the Daily Report, carefully documenting mistakes that should have been identified for its readers. It also showed that he had been misquoted by McDonald. However, the Daily Report refused to allow the letter to be published. Ultimately, they would only agree to publish a sanitized, general refutation by Solomiany.
During the lengthy meeting among Martin, his attorneys, and McDonald that preceded the publication of the article, McDonald was provided with specific confidential information showing photographic evidence proving that one of Carol’s claims was false. It was evidence that Martin’s attorneys planned to use to impeach Carol during the case. However, two days after McDonald was shown the evidence in confidence, Bloom filed a document amending Carol’s position so she could avoid impeachment. Further, other evidence developed during discovery showed that McDonald provided additional confidential information to Bloom or Carol that was helpful to them in developing their case.
The day after the Daily Report published the article, it followed up with a second article also authored by McDonald. This article reported that McDonald had contacted law enforcement authorities in San Diego in an effort to foment another criminal investigation of Martin by the District Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes felonies, even though the City Attorney’s office (which prosecutes misdemeanors) had declined to pursue a case against Martin following its initial investigation. The article also implied that Martin’s attorneys had influenced the City Attorney’s decision not to prosecute, although court records clearly establish that Martin had not yet retained those attorneys when the decision not to pursue the claims against him had been made. Unbeknownst to any attorney for either side at the time, Martin voluntarily requested and was given a polygraph test by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office a few days after the articles came out that was aimed at determining whether he had committed the domestic violence Carol claimed against him. His denials received an almost perfect score for credibility.
During discovery in the San Diego litigation, the motivations for the Daily Report to encourage criminal prosecution, attempt to influence the judges handling both the Georgia divorce and the California cases, and provide helpful information to the plaintiff by breaking reporter confidences, became clear.
Carol testified at her deposition that McDonald had informed her the Daily Report was interested in pursuing a story about domestic violence to follow up on one it had run earlier that had created unusual reader interest. Apparently, McDonald was referring to the series of articles that the Daily Report ran about domestic violence claims against Eleventh Circuit Judge Mark Fuller from August 2014 through June 2015, a period that overlapped with McDonald’s conversation with Carol. Carol’s deposition also revealed that McDonald was close friends with Art Harris, the husband of Carol’s best friend, Carol Martin. Carol Martin would later testify for Carol during the San Diego trial, but her testimony was implicitly rejected as untruthful by the jury. Art Harris, like McDonald, was a reporter, and he publishes a news blog called the “The Bald Truth.” Given his participation in promoting Carol’s fraudulent claims, Harris would later be referred to by Martin’s defense team as “The Bald Lie.” Harris and Carol Martin arranged for McDonald to attend a dinner with themselves and Carol. After their dinner, Carol and McDonald frequently emailed each other both about the case and other matters, and many of their emails copied Art Harris. On several occasions, McDonald provided Carol with helpful advice in her efforts to discredit Martin.
As a part of developing stories for his blog, Harris employed a private investigator, Wayne Black of Miami, Florida. Harris asked him to assist Carol with her case. After interviewing a witness at Carol’s instruction, Black lashed out at Carol who was upset with him for not eliciting the testimony she wanted and told her “[w]e will never push someone to falsely elaborate on their testimony.” He also instructed Carol to stop having Martin’s dogs followed and photographed because by doing so, she was violating the terms of the stipulated restraining order and risking contempt. Carol Martin even submitted an affidavit to support Carol’s claims of animal abuse, falsely claiming that Martin had caused one of his dogs to reinjure his paw when in fact, Carol Martin, herself, was responsible for the injury, as proven by uncontroverted evidence, including testimony from the vet. Not only did the court dismiss the animal abuse claims prior to trial, it ordered Carol to return the dogs to Martin immediately. Taken together, Harris’s cooperation with Bloom and McDonald and his use of his investigator to advance Carol’s case, as well as Carol Martin’s willingness to provide false testimony at trial and a false affidavit, strongly suggest a contingent quid pro quo.Both the Bloom Firm and the Daily Report tried to have Martin arrested on false criminal charges, and both savagely attacked his reputation with false claims. Had the case settled—a built-in expectation of the model—Bloom would have enjoyed a “successful” outcome and a big payday, and the Daily Report would have another sensational story to run. However, a story about a defendant’s verdict, including that Martin committed no domestic violence whatsoever, doesn’t fit the business model of either Bloom or the Daily Report. Apparently, that explains why the Daily Report has not run a follow-up story announcing the jury verdict.
Both the Bloom Firm and the Daily Report tried to have Martin arrested on false criminal charges, and both savagely attacked his reputation with false claims. Had the case settled—a built-in expectation of the model—Bloom would have enjoyed a “successful” outcome and a big payday, and the Daily Report would have another sensational story to run. However, a story about a defendant’s verdict, including that Martin committed no domestic violence whatsoever, doesn’t fit the business model of either Bloom or the Daily Report. Apparently, that explains why the Daily Report has not run a follow-up story announcing the jury verdict.
With the steadfast support of his defense teams, including former San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst and Susan Hack of Higgs Fletcher & Mack in San Diego and Randall Kessler and Marvin Solomiany of Kessler & Solomiany, LLC in Atlanta, Martin refused to settle the fraudulent claims brought against him. The trial lasted five weeks, and on August 31, 2017—three years after Carol had Martin arrested on a false domestic violence report and two years to the day after the first libelous Daily Report article ran—a 12-person jury rendered its verdict, specifically finding that Martin did not commit any domestic violence, whatsoever. The form on which the verdict was entered had more than 56 separate boxes the jury could check to find Martin liable for one or more claims, but the jury refused to check a single box. Martin’s saga was finally over, and much to her chagrin, Bloom’s prophecy that “the jury is going to see through all of this,” had come true.
By Krissi Gore