By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader
September 26. 2017 9:12PM
Tearfully at times, Manchester auto dealer Andy Crews testified Tuesday about the impact of being falsely accused of drug dealing, money laundering and gun running.
The accusations appeared on electronic billboards on South Willow Street, within sight of his AutoFair dealerships. They also appeared on the social media of his daughters, employees and customers.
And they appeared just as he was winning nationwide notoriety for AutoFair and local applause for his community involvement, including efforts to launch an addiction recovery center in Manchester.
“The one thing I wanted to do was run a business and run it the right way,” he said while grabbing a tissue during testimony in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord.
Crews was the leadoff witness in the trial that pits him and two other Manchester businessmen against Michael Gill and his company, Mortgage Specialists Inc.
It is an unusual trial.
The panel of 14 jurors and alternates will only decide how much to award Crews, developer Dick Anagnost and banker William Grenier; a judge has already ruled that Gill defamed the three.
And it is a one-sided trial. On Monday, Gill walked out of the courtroom, after labeling the trial a criminal enterprise and claiming he was headed to Washington to speak to the U.S. Justice Department about the corruption.
“It’s been one-sided all along — his side,” Anagnost said during a break in the testimony Tuesday. “It’s been all Michael Gill to this point. Now it’s our turn to speak.”
Anagnost is expected to testify Thursday.
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Brian Tucker ruled that Gill is liable for damages because he published a false and defamatory statement against each of the three. In April, Tucker approved a $12 million lien against property owned by Gill.
On Tuesday, Tucker told jurors that Gill has a right to have the dollar amount of damages determined by a jury, and that he has a right to attend or not attend the trial. Gill had previously said he would represent himself.
The defense table was empty Tuesday, except for a stack of disposable cups.
During testimony, Crews and lawyer Steven Gordon described Gill a man who built a fortune in horse racing and writing mortgages. They said he was skilled at marketing and used a radio show, internet, social media and electronic billboards to draw attention to his “State of Corruption” message.
He did so because he wanted to be governor, Crews said.
“In marketing, if you’re going to be Batman, you need a villain,” Crews said. “He decided Dick (Anagnost) and I were going to be his Joker.”
Crews said he was initially advised to ignore the allegations, and Gill would find someone else to pillory. But that amounted to knuckling under to a bully, who might start picking on someone who could not afford the legal fight, Crews said.
His legal team showed slides and video clips of Gill’s billboards, his radio show and his Facebook posts. Crews said Gill used search engine optimization and Facebook advertising to boost the prominence of his posts.
One Facebook post had more than 2 million views.
Meanwhile, Crews said AutoFair lost employees and customers due to the slander. AutoFair sales in 2015 were $496 million, but sales fell by an estimated $60 million over the next two years despite a growing economy.
“If I knew a business was owned by a drug dealer,” he said, “would I buy a car from them? No.”