First Anniversary of the Plot to Smear Council Chairman Johnny Gardner

By Paul Gable

Exactly one year ago today former county administrator Chris Eldridge, former council chairman Mark Lazarus and county attorney Arrigo Carotti went public with a plot to attempt to overturn the will of the voters by smearing incoming county chairman Johnny Gardner on the day of his swearing in.

In the week prior, Carotti had authored a five-page memo, with input from Eldridge and Lazarus, attempting to portray Gardner as being involved in a plot to extort money from the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation.

The memo was sent to council members as ‘Attorney Client Privileged’ in an attempt to try and give some official weight to the narrative and, within 12 hours, leaked to a Columbia media outlet to make the story public. The supposed facts in the memo were entirely fictitious.

As soon as the leaked story was published on the internet, complete with a copy of Carotti’s memo, Eldridge sent the memo to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division requesting an investigation.

Within a one day period, the plotters had linked the name ‘Gardner’ to the word ‘extortion’, spread the story statewide and used the publishing of the story as an excuse to contact SLED.

It was an email from Lazarus to Eldridge that first brought SLED into the conversation.

The problem was the story was complete fiction, But that didn’t stop the plotters. The apparent objective was to get Gardner to step aside from the office he had been elected to so that Lazarus could reclaim it. (At the time, apparently unaware of the provisions for filling a vacancy in a county office, they thought the Governor could make an appointment to fill the void and that appointment would be Lazarus who had been defeated by Gardner at the polls.

Within another 24 hours, the entire plot began to fall apart.

Carotti used alleged statements made by Sandy Davis, President and CEO of the MBREDC to both himself and Eldridge as a major source for his narrative, as well as a recording of a lunch meeting between Gardner, Davis and two others.

When contacted by media for comment about the Carotti memo, Davis was quoted responding about the memo, “A lot of it was fabricated.”

Over the next several weeks, SLED conducted an investigation into the allegations of extortion interviewing the Gardner, Davis, the other two attendees at the recorded lunch, Carotti, Eldridge, and several MBREDC board members, as well as reviewing the entire taped conversation.

When it became apparent that nothing was being found to agree with the allegations of the plotters nor to incriminate Gardner in any wrongdoing, Carotti attempted to intervene in the investigation by sending another memo to SLED. The memo attempted to tell SLED investigators what they should be doing. Such an attempt to intervene in an active investigation is a violation of South Carolina Rules for Attorney Conduct.

The SLED investigation found no wrongdoing and Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson issued a statement saying there was no evidence found and nothing to warrant prosecution.

During the wait for the SLED report of the investigation, social media was alive with comments with an overwhelming majority supporting Gardner and attacking the plotters.

After the SLED report was made public, county council held a special meeting to discuss the SLED report and the part played by Eldridge in the false memo. Under the current form of county government, Eldridge is the only county employee council may fire.

The debate broke down into two halves of council. One half supported firing Eldridge. The other half, who attempted to support Eldridge’s conduct, was led by council member Dennis DiSabato who charged from the dais that he heard “pay for play” on the tape even after SLED finding nothing.

With a view toward the recent events in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding impeachment of President Trump, it could be said DiSabato played the part of Nancy Pelosi in this special meeting railing against Gardner with nothing to support his accusations. Several council members reported that prior to the meeting DiSabato had told them he would ‘never support that SOB Gardner.’

The vote in that special meeting broke into a 6-6 tie with DiSabato, Cam Crawford, Gary Loftis, Bill Howard, Tyler Servant and Harold Worley voting not to fire Eldridge.

Another vote one month later overwhelmingly supported getting rid of Eldridge with a buyout of his contract with over a quarter of a million dollar payoff. The buyout vs. firing of Eldridge cost the taxpayers over a quarter of a million dollars, something very unpopular among voters.

As I wrote at the time, the first vote could be viewed as Gardner and the People vs. DiSabato and his followers. Three of the group, DiSabato, Crawford and Loftis, will be up for reelection next year. Crawford and Loftis should expect to have to justify following the lead of the Pelosi-like DiSabato with all three explaining costing the taxpayers over a quarter of a million dollars to rid the county of Eldridge.

Things have changed in the county over the past year. Morale among county employees has risen significantly since the Lazarus/Eldridge style of heavy handed leadership has ended. For the first time, council is taking a serious look at impact fees to lessen the burden of infrastructure needs for new construction from the backs of current residents. Public Safety funding and hiring is up to better meet the needs of the county.

After the SLED report was made public, I wrote a piece titled, “SLED Said NO, Eldridge and Carotti Gotta Go”. Eldridge is gone. For some reason Carotti remains. (It is up to the administrator to terminate him.)

Carotti’s memo was much more ‘creative writing’ than ‘attorney client privileged.’

The county has taken several beatings in court from the lawsuit filed regarding extension of the hospitality fee after Ride I bonds were paid off (another Lazarus/Eldridge initiative with legal concurrence from Carotti.)

Carotti has maintained a poor relationship with Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones, attacking Jones’ credibility after she filed a lawsuit against the county and, more recently, falsely stating a motion Jones filed in the hospitality fee lawsuit was “inactive” when it is, in fact, very active.

I guess we have to see what the New Year brings for a final chapter on the plot that failed.


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