By Paul Gable
As statements at the special county council meeting of March 5, 2019 bring to light, we have still not heard the truth about why allegations were made against Chairman Johnny Gardner before he took office, about why SLED was called in to investigate the allegations and about who participated in what now appears to be a conspiracy to keep Gardner from ever taking office.
It has always been a mystery of why the Carotti memo was leaked to Fitsnews and who leaked it? The memo relates a version, based on hearsay, about what took place at a meeting between Gardner, Luke Barefoot and Sandy Davis and Sherri Steele of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation during which, Eldridge alleges to this day, possible illegal comments were made.
The only logical explanation of why it was leaked was to get the discussion into the public domain. Once it was in the public domain, especially with it being leaked to a media outlet that borders on the sensational with its stories, there was a virtual guarantee it would be picked up by other media spreading the story.
The story became Gardner’s name linked with the word “extortion” before he ever took office. I believe leaking the memo was intentional and there was a hope that Gardner could be prevented from taking office, thereby overturning the will of the voters.
I have transcribed what I believe are key portions of Tuesday’s special meeting.
The following transcription begins at 1:02:01 of the special meeting of council on March 5, 2019:
Al Allen: Question, you mentioned earlier that some council members knew about this and this tape. I can understand councilman Loftus because he was on the EDC board and I can understand Mark because he was on the EDC board. You mentioned councilman Worley and you mentioned councilman Servant. Now how did they know and the rest of this council didn’t know?
Chris Eldridge: No they didn’t know. It was after the memo from Arrigo Carotti went out that I heard from council members that said ‘that needs to go to SLED.’
An exchange between Allen and Eldridge takes place.
Eldridge: It did not go to SLED until the following morning. I got the email that I sent to Chief Keel the following day.
Johnny Vaught: Was that after it came out in Fitsnews?
Eldridge: Yessir it was after it came out in Fitsnews.
Allen then refers to the email that Eldridge sent to EDC board chairman Neyle Wilson on December 12, 2018.
Allen quoting from the email: First of all you said, we can discuss it at the board meeting tomorrow. Either way I will talk with my council at Tuesday night’s meeting too.
Eldridge: That email was to Neyle Wilson to try and get a copy of the tape, to try and get a copy of the recording. Chairman Lazarus would not put it on the agenda that Tuesday night. We listened to the recording the following morning.
An exchange between Eldridge and Allen.
Eldridge pointing his finger: Mr. Carotti’s email did not go to SLED until the following day after it was to SLED (I believe he meant to say leaked) and my concern that day was that I would be in trouble because the thing was out in the public and I would get accused of covering it up. And I was getting it to Chief Keel as fast as I could.
Eldridge claimed several times during the meeting that he did not send an email to SLED until after he knew the story was leaked by Fitsnews.
But, in its first story, which included the entire five page Carotti memo, Fitsnews reported that multiple council members already discussed the need to refer the matter to SLED. The first story appeared on the website less than 12 hours after the memo was sent to council and approximately four hours before SLED was notified by Eldridge. According to an Eldridge statement to council member Orton Bellamy, during the meeting, Eldridge notified SLED at 9:59 a.m. December 20, 2018.
A followup story by Fitsnews shortly after Eldridge’s email was sent to SLED on December 20th reported that SLED was already investigating the allegations. The leaking of the memo to Fitsnews so it could appear in print less than 12 hours after it was sent to council members and the quick followup that SLED had been asked to investigate doesn’t happen without prior planning.,
Allen: Which council members did you confer with before you sent it to SLED?
Worley breaks in to say, “I called you, I called, Mr. Chairman may I respond?”
Allen yields to Worley. The following transcription begins at 1:06:20 of the special meeting of council on March 5, 2019. Both of the statements come from council member Worley:
“When I got that report, I was very alarmed quite naturally as we all were. I picked up the telephone and I called him (Eldridge). What’s goin’ on and he tells me. He said what do you think? I said well you represent all of us. I told Chris you represent all of us. And I said, if there’s something in that tape, of which I have not heard, okay, I’ve just read what I read, then, you have to do what you have to do. That’s what you have to do. All I know is what’s in the report (Carotti memo). I have not heard the tape. I have as of now heard the tape. A few days ago I managed to get a copy of it and I heard the tape but that’s my involvement in it. I don’t know about anybody else, but as chairman of the admin committee at that time, I felt a responsibility to find out what’s goin’ on.
“Now, to go back to the last meeting that we had, I can assure you, Mr. Lazarus going out on his last night, what Chris said and I’m not throwing Mark under the bus or anybody under the bus I’m just telling the truth it was his last night and he was just adamant about not talking about it. He felt like if he talked about it then, and he said this to me, if we talk about that then it’s going to look like I’m (Lazarus) pushing this agenda and he said I’m not going to have it. And I said well you’re the chairman and I dropped it. Now that’s what I know about that Al.”
(Note the above conversation between Worley and Lazarus is related as having taken place in the present tense.)
The above transcribed statements show just how difficult it is to keep a false story straight.
Eldridge said only two council members, Mark Lazarus and Gary Loftus, knew about what allegedly took place at the meeting prior to the Carotti email being sent to council on December 19th. Worley said he first heard about it when he read the Carotti email on December 19th and immediately picked up the phone to call Eldridge and asked what was going on.
However, Worley related to council a discussion he had with then chairman Mark Lazarus prior to the council meeting of December 18th.
If Worley knew nothing about the allegations contained in Carotti’s memo until after it was emailed on December 19th, as both Worley and Eldridge stated during the special meeting, how could he possibly have had the conversation transcribed above with Lazarus on December 18th?
And if Worley knew prior to the 19th, when did Servant discuss with Eldridge about bringing in SLED?
What justification did Worley and Servant use for informing SLED when Carotti says on the fifth page of his memo that there are several different versions of what took place at the meeting and he doesn’t know what happened? If Carotti didn’t know what happened, and he authored the memo, how could council members or Eldridge even think they had facts to justify a SLED investigation unless their minds were already made up?
The obvious answer is neither Worley nor Eldridge are telling the truth about who knew what when!
It appears from the Eldridge memo to Wilson of December 12th ,when Eldridge already had a story firmly fixed in his mind about what happened at the meeting regardless of the facts and later investigation findings, and December 19th, when the Carotti memo was sent to council members and immediately leaked to the media, discussions between a few council members and Eldridge took place about giving the false allegations to SLED and getting the story into the media.
Eldridge insisted several times he did not contact SLED until after the memo was leaked in the media, but, if Worley and Servant encouraged him to send the info to SLED the night before, why did he wait until after the leak?
That smells of conspiracy to harm Gardner.
(Writer’s Note – I listened to the entire 67 minutes of the recording of the lunch meeting and there was nothing in it reflecting what Eldridge likes to claim was there.)