By Paul Gable
As the county awaits the report of the SLED investigation into alleged wrongdoing by county Chairman Johnny Gardner, initiated by County Administrator Chris Eldridge and County Attorney Arrigo Carotti, it appears those two are attempting to couch a defense for their actions in the pose of whistleblowers.
This has been obvious since the January 4, 2019 special meeting of council when both appeared at the meeting with personal attorneys.
The Eldridge letter presented to council members after the special meeting specifically speaks of him being a “target of retaliation” if he is either fired or suspended by council – a classic whistleblower defense.
There is one major fault with this defense. Whistleblowing protections are not extended to those who report potential wrongdoing based on unsubstantiated hearsay and rumors.
According to documents written by Carotti and Eldridge, unsubstantiated hearsay and rumors are all they had to justify the imaginary plot they had developed in their minds.
In its simplest form, that plot goes this way – Gardner campaign manager Luke Barefoot and Gardner, by extension because he accompanied Barefoot to one meeting held on November 30, 2018, with two Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) officials, attempted to have the EDC pay Gardner campaign consultant Donald Smith so that a rumored negative story about the EDC would not appear in Grand Strand Daily. (Total Rumor)
On or about December 5, 2018, Carotti and Eldridge learned that a tape recording of that meeting existed and, apparently, believed it contained a “smoking gun.”
On December 12, 2018, Eldridge wrote an email to Neyle Wilson, Chairman of the Board of the EDC, sharing “conversation points” (hearsay) EDC CEO Sandy Davis allegedly told to Carotti about that meeting. In the email, Eldridge complained that the EDC had “an unwillingness to share the taped recording” even though the email is part of an email string in which Wilson twice (December 7 and December 12) offered to allow Eldridge to listen to the recording.
Ultimately, on December 19, Eldridge, Carotti, council members Mark Lazarus and Gary Loftus and several EDC officials listened to the portion of the recording that applied to what Eldridge was alleging.
In his letter to council Eldridge states, “It had been my hope that what we listened to on Wednesday December 19, 2019 (he meant 2018) at 10 a. m. would put things to rest. As outlined in the Horry County Attorney’s memo, it did not.” (No smoking gun, nothing to corroborate the Eldridge and Carotti allegations.)
After that meeting, Carotti, according to the memo he authored and Eldridge referred to above, went back to his office to complete the memo that he had begun writing on December 14 based on recollections of conversations with Davis, on or about December 5, about conversations she had with Barefoot prior to that time (total hearsay).
The five-page Carotti memo was sent to the 12 members of council and Eldridge in the evening of December 19. It was leaked to and appeared on the website of a Columbia media outlet on the morning of December 20, approximately 12 hours from its completion.
In his memo, Carotti states, “I also explained I have been told several different versions of what took place and didn’t actually know what had taken place (in the November 30 meeting).” (Again, total hearsay/rumor with an admission he had no facts of what had been said.)
Once the memo appeared on the Columbia media website, Davis stated to local media, “A lot of it (the memo) was fabricated.”
Eldridge states in his letter to council, “Once the memo was shared on the evening of December 19th, I was encouraged by some Council Members to report the matter to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Regardless, it was my responsibility to do so. I do not know what, if anything, the investigation will conclude.”
A five-page memo by Carotti was written from “recollections” of conversations he had with Davis about prior conversations she had with Barefoot (Hearsay) is hardly justification for calling for an investigation by SLED.
And, much of the memo was called “fabricated” by Davis after she read it on the media website and she was supposedly the prime source for information in the memo.
Good luck with your whistleblower defense gentlemen.