SLED Report in Review by Solicitor

By Paul Gable

The SLED investigation report into allegations of wrongdoing by Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner was delivered to the solicitor’s office late Thursday afternoon, Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson confirmed to Grand Strand Daily today.

Richardson will receive a full briefing from SLED agents before releasing a statement about his conclusions, probably Monday.

The report included videotapes of all interviews conducted by SLED in the investigation, a complete copy of the recording of a November 30, 2018 meeting between Sandy Davis and Sherri Steele of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation and Gardner and his business partner Luke Barefoot and other items related to the investigation.

According to Richardson, the report was subjected to peer review before its release, which means an agent not involved in the initial investigation checked the report for accuracy in its findings.

The attempt to smear Gardner was initiated by Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge and Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti with a memo sent by Carotti, with the full concurrence of Eldridge, to council members after 6 p.m. December 19, 2018.

Before 6 a.m. December 20, 2018, the memo and a story connecting the words “Gardner” and “extortion” appeared on the website of a Columbia media outlet. The media outlet is the same one that attempted to smear Nikki Haley with allegations of illicit affairs when she was running for governor in 2010.

The less than 12 hours, evening and night hours, is much too tight for anything other than a pre-planned leak of the Carotti memo, labeled “Attorney Client Privileged”, and the accompanying sensationalized story.

Access to the memo was initially limited to the 12 members of council in December 2018 plus Eldridge and Carotti. Who leaked the memo? I can think of only three of the original 14 who could possibly think they would benefit from such a leak.

I knew and wrote from the very beginning that all the allegations of actions in the Carotti memo were false. I positively knew that because I was named by Carotti as playing a part in this alleged plot and I knew what he alleged about my supposed part was totally false. I had no doubt the rest of the allegations were equally false because if my alleged part was false, the entire plot fell apart.

The concept that the allegations were false was further supported by Davis when she was contacted by other media. Davis was the source for most of the supposed facts in the Carotti memo, according to his account. When asked about the memo by media, Davis responded, “A lot of it is fabricated.”

Within 24 hours of the memo being completed and emailed, it was completely shot full of holes. But that didn’t stop Eldridge from extending the farce by contacting SLED with the allegations.

In what can only be described as a self-serving attempt to justify his actions, Eldridge provided a letter to council members on January 4, 2019.

In the letter Eldridge said, “As to the events that have created this situation, Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti accurately summarized them in his privileged attorney/client memo. I believe Mr. Carotti acted correctly in providing this information to County Council and myself.”

Let’s study that statement. Carotti, on the fifth page of his memo, backs away from the story he wrote in the first four pages. He wrote, “I also explained that I had been told several different versions of what took place, and didn’t know what actually had taken place.”

Carotti, on the fifth page of his memo, effectively states that he doesn’t know if anything he stated in the previous four pages “actually had taken place.”

In his letter to council, Eldridge attempts to justify sending the false allegations to SLED. “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.”

Which council members encouraged you, Chris, to send information you didn’t know to be factual to SLED?

And why was it your responsibility, Chris, to report the matter to SLED when Carotti, in his memo, stated he didn’t know if what he was relating “actually had taken place?”

The county administrator and county attorney acted with reckless disregard for the truth from the December 19th memo onward. They created a plot out of thin air and shared that plot with council and SLED even though they had no real facts to back up the story.

One must question the professionalism of both Carotti and Eldridge throughout this matter.

The following extract is from Rule 407 of South Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, A Lawyer’s Responsibilities:

“[5] A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs. A lawyer should use the law’s procedures only for legitimate purposes and not to harass or intimidate others. A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials. While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process.”

The following is an extract from the Code of Ethics of the International City/County Managers Association of which Eldridge claims to be a “Credentialed Manager”:

“Be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the respect and confidence of the elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public.

“Public Confidence. Members should conduct themselves so as to maintain public confidence in their profession, their local government, and in their performance of the public trust.”

It does not appear that either Eldridge or Carotti attempted to uphold basic rules and tenets of their respective professional organizations through their conduct in this matter.

The SLED report does not end this issue. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is certainly the end of the beginning.”

It is time for to council live up to its responsibilities, to call Eldridge and Carotti to account for their actions in sending false allegations about the new council chairman to SLED. It is time for council to take action to correct the reckless disregard for the truth demonstrated by two of its senior staff members.

And, I suspect, it is time for at least some of the individuals named in the Carotti memo and seconded by Eldridge, as having been part of this fictitious plot, to seek redress through legal action.

Link to Eldridge Letter: Eldridge letter

Link to Carotti Memo: Attorney-Client-Privileged (1)

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