By Paul Gable
Last week’s premature adjournment of the county council meeting in order to gag council member Al Allen’s requested discussion of county legal fees allowed deeper issues inside the government and county to come to the surface.
A simple request from Allen for county legal fees paid to outside attorneys has been blown up into a supposed politically motivated conspiracy, according to a report in a local media outlet. Two “county officials” speaking on conditions of anonymity, according to the story, put forth a theory alleging a plot to fire County Administrator Steve Gosnell and County Attorney Arrigo Carotti was the reason for Allen’s request.
And make no mistake, the information Allen requested and which was ultimately provided to Allen, other council members (although many of those other members saw the information well before it was produced to Allen) and the media is definitely public information.
According to statements in local media, County Attorney Arrigo Carotti brought Allen’s request for the information on legal fees to council member Johnny Vaught. The excuse Vaught gave to the media was Carotti did that because the legal department budget falls within the oversight of the county Administration Committee of which Vaught is chairman.
Vaught told media he had concern that county legal strategies could be discussed and he didn’t want that sensitive information to become public. I would submit that type of information is already public.
If someone wants to assess legal strategy in any lawsuit, they can go online to the judicial records to read the complaint, response, motions and responses, depositions and view the exhibits associated with the case. All of that information becomes open to the public the minute it is filed with the court. A person is going to gain a lot more information about legal strategy from those documents than from records of how much in legal fees was paid and to whom it was paid.
Vaught’s entire premise that he was attempting to protect privileged information is ridiculous. But the ensuing rhetoric which evolved around the issue and the players involved point to deeper intent.
The real story is the one involving those who said the information requested by Allen should not be released publicly and who created a false narrative in an attempt to publicly embarrass Allen and, later, council Chairman Johnny Gardner.
As late as two days after the council meeting, Vaught and Carotti were trying to keep alive the myth that the information requested by Allen was privileged until Freedom of Information Act requests by local media stopped that narrative.
A series of emails between council members, which almost immediately entered the public domain, added new issues to the mix.
Vaught sent an email to Allen attempting to blame Allen for the public brouhaha that erupted in media after council member Dennis DiSabato moved the premature adjournment of county council to avoid Allen’s requested discussion of county legal fees.
“All of this would have been avoided if you had accepted any one of the three opportunities to be briefed on this information al, vs trying to make it a political statement,” read Vaught’s email in part.
“It was your interference in this matter along with the County Attorney choosing to totally ignore a member of council with a legitimate request and having you run interference for him that has led up to these shenanigans!” Allen responded.
Gardner issued a press release that read in part, “I have no idea why Councilman Vaught got into the middle of this, diverted the information to an executive session of the admin committee and told fellow council members and the media the information was subject to attorney client privilege. It is not. I have no idea why Mr. Carotti, Mr. Vaught and Mr. Disabato felt this information should be withheld from Mr. Allen and should not be public. That is a question you need to ask them.”
DiSabato responded to Gardner’s press release with an email attacking Gardner and Allen.
“The fact is, you have lost all control of this council and have failed to effectively lead this governing body since you were elected,” DiSabato wrote attacking Gardner.
Attempting to divert the focus from his actions at Tuesday’s council meeting, DiSabato chose to shift attention to county contracts Allen’s business, Allen Aviation, has with the county.
“I believe it is important for the public to understand exactly how much of our tax revenue is being spent with Allen Aviation,” DiSabato said. “I also believe it is important for the public to understand that these contracts are doled out by the Public Works Department, which reports to the Infrastructure and Regulation Committee, chaired by Mr. Allen.”
What DiSabato failed to mention is that every contract awarded to Allen Aviation has been selected by a sealed bid process in which Allen Aviation was the lowest bidder. Allen called DiSabato’s implied accusations of wrongdoing by Allen as being “ignorant and uninformed.” Allen stated he is perfectly prepared to discuss the Allen Aviation contract with the county publicly at the next council meeting.
Council member Cam Crawford chimed into the conversation with an email to DiSabato again attempting to infer wrongdoing.
“I’ve learned a particular council member actually probed Arrigo Carroti, asking questions regarding his retirement and going on to express interest in his job,” Crawford wrote to DiSabato.
Gardner responded to Crawford, “Why don’t you man up and say the council member you are afraid to mention is me. You are obviously referring to a casual conversation that took place about a year ago between myself and Mr. Carotti where I said I was retiring in about eight years and I jokingly said I might apply for the assistant to the assistant county attorney.”
As the conversation between Gardner and Carotti took place with only those two present, according to Gardner, and Gardner did not speak to Crawford about the conversation prior to Crawford’s email, Crawford’s information about the conversation had to come from Carotti.
This is not the first time a casual conversation of Gardner’s has been attempted to be used against Gardner.
After winning election as county chairman but prior to taking office, Gardner and his then business partner Luke Barefoot met with two officials of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation over lunch to discuss the corporation.
A recording of that conversation was heard by Carotti, then county administrator Chris Eldridge and outgoing county chairman Mark Lazarus. A string of emails ensued. Carotti authored a five-page memorandum that alleged Gardner attempted to extort the MBREDC officials. The memorandum was supposed to be confidential to county council, but was almost immediately leaked to a media outlet and, according to Eldridge, sent to SLED as a result of the leak.
The day the leak occurred, the CEO of the MBREDC, one of the attendees at the lunch meeting, called Carotti’s memorandum “mostly fabricated” information. An investigation into the matter by SLED found no wrongdoing by Gardner, but the attempt to smear Gardner was public.
Despite the results of the SLED investigation, DiSabato insisted during a council meeting discussing the investigation that Gardner had been involved in a “pay to play” scheme, a second attempt to smear Gardner publicly.
Why all this divisive public rhetoric?
There is a cabal of behind the scenes players in the county with ties to several county officials who have never forgiven Gardner for defeating Mark Lazarus in 2018 for the job of council chairman.
One reason for their attitude is the stifling, at least in the near term, of their ability to feed at the trough of public dollars for Interstate 73. Another is their perceived, possible financial loss from the potential imposition of county impact fees on new development.
I don’t believe it was mere chance that the first public input in over a year at county council not tied to a specific ordinance came from a woman purporting to speak for “the majority” in support of I-73.
It was Carotti who assured council in 2017 that there was sound legal basis for eliminating the sunset clause in the Hospitality Fee ordinance and extending the collection of those fees ad infinitum, an opinion that blew up when Myrtle Beach sued the county to stop collection of those fees.
It was Lazarus who, as then council chairman, said the revenue from those fees, approximately $40 million per year, could be used to fund I-73, a prospect that stopped with the settlement of the lawsuit brought by Myrtle Beach.
It is Vaught, DiSabato and Crawford who are the loudest ‘drums’ banging locally to somehow keep county funding of I-73 alive.
According to a number of sources, Lazarus, Vaught and DiSabato have stated they will challenge Gardner for the county chair Republican nomination in 2022.
Crawford and his wife, state Rep. Heather Crawford, were political consultants for the failed 2018 Lazarus campaign against Gardner.
All have ties to the cabal that wants to keep the I-73 project alive.
The cabal sees Allen and Gardner as council members with views that are counter to their wishes, but political issues are never that simple. Allen and Gardner are both up for reelection next year so anything that can be done to potentially harm their public images benefits the cabal.