By Paul Gable
Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge spun a tangled web of contradictions with his responses to council at last week’s special council meeting during which Eldridge told his version of how SLED was called to investigate Chairman Johnny Gardner.
Eldridge was grilled by council members Al Allen, Johnny Vaught, Danny Hardee, Orton Bellamy and Paul Prince on why all members of council were neither consulted prior to calling for a SLED investigation nor told about a request to SLED after it was made.
Most of council had to read about the matter being referred to SLED and SLED investigating the allegations in articles published by Columbia media outlet Fitsnews. And it was those articles that caused Eldridge the most difficulty last week.
As demonstrated by his December 12, 2018 email to Neyle Wilson and Sandy Davis of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, county attorney Arrigo Carotti, county chairman Mark Lazarus and council member Gary Loftus, Eldridge already had his story firmly in mind about what happened during a lunch meeting between Gardner, Luke Barefoot, Davis and her co-worker Sherri Steele.
Eldridge accused EDC of not allowing him access to a tape recording of the meeting after Wilson had already offered twice to allow Eldridge to listen to the recording in an email of December 7, 2018 with a follow up email December 12th. It was Wilson’s December 12th email that elicited Eldridge’s confusing accusations to Wilson.
One other interesting point, while Eldridge used the business emails of Wilson, Davis and Carotti, he used the personal emails of Lazarus and Loftus. Was he trying to hide this from other council members?
After ultimately listening to the recording on December 19, 2019, Eldridge sent a five-page memo, authored by Carotti, by email to all council members after 6 p.m. at night. The Carotti memo was leaked to Fitsnews virtually immediately and appeared less than 12 hours later on the media outlet’s website.
Eldridge stated several times during the special council meeting that no council members other than Lazarus and Loftus knew about his allegations until they received Carotti’s memo.
In the first story about the memo, the following quote appeared, “According to sources familiar with the situation, multiple council members have already discussed the need to refer the “broadening debacle” over this “veiled threat” to the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) for a proper criminal investigation.” Fitsnews early morning Dec 20, 2018.
Questioned about who the council members were that recommended a SLED investigation, Eldridge said Harold Worley and Tyler Servant, but he insisted several times that he did not send the memo to SLED until after it appeared on the Fitsnews website and was in the public domain. He said he didn’t want it to become public, but after it was published Eldridge feared he would be accused of a coverup if he did not send it to SLED.
The story appeared before 6 a.m. December 20, 2018. Eldridge told council he sent a request for an investigation to SLED at 9:59 a.m. on the same day. Eldridge stated he did not tell any council members prior to making that request to SLED.
Almost immediately after the Eldridge email to SLED, a followup story was posted on the website which said, “Agents of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) are investigating an alleged shakedown attempt involving the newly sworn-in county council chairman in Horry County, S.C.” Fitsnews shortly after Eldridge emailed SLED at 9:59 a.m. Dec 20th.
Council members Bellamy and Vaught both questioned Eldridge about why council was not told Eldridge intended to call in SLED. Eldridge looked very uncomfortable as he hemmed and hawed and gave no real response to the questions. This was a much different demeanor from the rather arrogant, finger pointing administrator on display earlier in the meeting.
Council member Allen questioned Eldridge about who told Fitsnews that a SLED investigation had been requested. “If you made that call on your own, as you’ve already answered to, the media wouldn’t have known about SLED unless somebody told them. And if you were the only one that knew about it, who told them?”
“I didn’t tell any media, no” Eldridge responded.
“Somebody did because the media knew about it before we (council) knew about it,” Allen shot back.
“As I say whoever’s doing whatever. It was not me,” Eldridge responded.
“Well sir, if it quacks and it swims and sounds like a duck it’s probably a duck,” Allen stated to loud applause from the packed audience demonstrating disbelief in Eldridge’s statements.
Eldridge told Allen he never used the word “extortion” but it clearly states in the SLED report that Sherri Steele said he did.
Eldridge stated several times during the special council meeting that no other council members knew about his allegations until they received Carotti’s memo.
Worley compounded the problem of Eldridge’s contradictions in his own comments to council. Worley said he first heard about the allegations after he received the Carotti memo on December 19th. However, later in his statement, Worley spoke of a conversation he had with then chairman Lazarus before the December 18th regular council meeting during which Lazarus refused to have the matter discussed during executive session at the last council meeting he would chair before being replaced by Gardner.
“And I said well you’re the chairman and I dropped it,” Worley said.
It is still unanswered – if Worley knew nothing until receiving the Carotti memo, as both Worley and Eldridge stated, how could Worley possibly have had the conversation with Lazarus the day before the memo was sent?
There’s something rotten in Horry County. The truth is simply not being told.
And we haven’t begun to talk about Eldridge’s management style that drew criticism from all nine council members who spoke during the meeting.
If the man hired by and answerable to council for the administration of county government is not truthful with the members of council who are his bosses, shouldn’t he be immediately terminated? Eldridge has fired county employees for much less.
If his management style draws criticism from nine council members, shouldn’t he be fired?
There is no excuse to wait any longer to get the deed done!
Worley completely contradicted a key part of Eldridge’s story in his narrative about speaking with Lazarus concerning the matter the day before Worley was supposed to know anything about it and somewhere along the line Servant was brought into it. Carotti became involved as early as December 5, 2018, according to his memo.
This is starting to sound very much like a civil conspiracy and it didn’t just affect Gardner. As Allen said during the meeting, the Carotti memo mentioned several very prominent people in the county who were included in the narrative but had nothing to do with the meeting in question. Allen said he believed lawsuits would be coming.
The SLED investigation uncovered no wrongdoing but Servant insisted on continuing the false narrative in an op-ed to the Sun News the day after the meeting. In his op-ed, Servant mentions private citizens and speaks of “paid agendas”, “cover-ups” and “backroom meetings”, none of which ever occurred but he continues to state in public as if they did.
There is a group that could be considered to have entered into a civil conspiracy to harm Gardner and others mentioned in the Eldridge email and Carotti memo. That group can’t let go of their false narrative while maintaining very selective memories about the facts.
The attacks on the character of individuals continue well after the SLED findings of no wrongdoing were made public. Somewhere I believe I hear cash registers ringing rapidly as potential damages mount with each new utterance.