By Paul Gable
Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge and Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti were left off the hook last Friday when Horry County Council quickly voted to adjourn a meeting rather than drill down on why the two embarrassed the county by calling for a SLED investigation of a rather ridiculous version of events allegedly involving council Chairman Johnny Gardner.
Using alleged here is really a stretch as fantasy much closer describes a five-page email Carotti authored and Eldridge said, in a letter delivered to council members after the meeting, “accurately summarized” what transpired.
If Eldridge and Carotti are to be believed, we have to accept that Gardner attempted to have the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation (EDC) funnel “thousands of dollars” (Eldridge words) to Donald Smith (Gardner’s campaign consultant), somehow using the Beach Ball Classic “for political cover” (Carotti words). The EDC board is filled with many of the most prominent and politically connected business people, educators and government officials in the county.
By Carotti’s admission in his email, he began writing the email on the 14th relating events that began on (or before) December 5th. Carotti completed his email on December 19th sending it to Eldridge and the 12 members of county council at that time. The entire email was leaked and published in a Columbia media outlet within 12 hours of its completion.
There are supposedly only 14 people who had initial access to this email. At least one of those was the source of its initial leak. Find the leaker among Eldridge, Carotti and the 12 members of council in December and you will discover not only the reason for the leak, but also the reason the email was written in the first place. The motivation will be political, not legal, moral or ethical.
The email contains information Carotti allegedly heard from Davis about conversations she allegedly had with Barefoot. In other words, ‘he said, she said, he said.’ In Eldridge’s case, most of his knowledge was gained from Carotti’s retelling of those conversations, or another way, ’he said, he said, she said, he said.’
Have neither of these two ever heard of hearsay?
Speaking to media about the Carotti email after it was leaked, Davis was quoted as saying, “A lot of it is fabricated.”
One of the centerpieces of the email is a recording of a meeting Gardner and his campaign manager Luke Barefoot held with EDC CEO Sandy Davis and her number two Sherri Steele.
According to Davis there was no attempt at extortion nor pressure being applied to her by either Gardner or Barefoot and there is nothing on the recording to interpret what was said as such.
Let’s look at what is so ridiculous about the Eldridge and Carotti allegations and what council apparently did not want to hear last Friday.
Gardner has been a practicing attorney for over 26 years. He began his career as an assistant solicitor in the 15th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office for several years. He then, and continues to this day, to be a criminal defense attorney with offices in Conway and Myrtle Beach.
In other words Gardner is a real lawyer according to legendary American lawyer Clarence Darrow who once said, “The only real lawyers are trial lawyers, and trial lawyers try cases to juries.”
The email would have us believe that such an experienced criminal lawyer would risk his license to practice for the benefit not of himself, but rather a third party.
According to Barefoot, EDC officials first reached out to Gardner requesting a meeting within days of his winning the June 12th Republican Primary replacing incumbent chairman Mark Lazarus on the November general election ballot virtually guaranteeing Gardner as the next council chairman.
Gardner and Barefoot held the lunch meeting with Davis and Steele, referred to above, in early December, the only meeting Gardner has ever had with Steele and/or Davis. Are we to believe that Gardner was so anxious to have money funneled to his campaign consultant that he waited six months to have a meeting?
The meeting was held on a weekday in the Bistro in Conway during lunch time. The Bistro is one of the most crowded restaurants in Horry County for weekday lunches with much of the crowd coming from the Horry County Government and Justice Center across the street.
Now we have to believe that an experienced criminal attorney and newly elected county council chairman would attempt to “extort” (a word bandied about much in the media about this issue) money for the benefit of a third party from one of the most politically connected organizations in Horry County (EDC) in the open in a crowded restaurant with most of the patrons being themselves Horry County employees in the only meeting Gardner ever held with EDC officials.
Who, other than Eldridge and Carotti, even believes this is a remotely possible scenario much less a reasonable one that required reporting it to SLED for investigation?
Eldridge said in his letter he was encouraged by some council members to report this to SLED and it was his duty to do so. Isn’t it a felony offense in South Carolina to make a false report to a police agency, especially a report based entirely on third and fourth hand hearsay information?
Council was obviously willing to allow this embarrassment for the county to linger rather than trying to find the answers to the above and other questions about this entire affair.
Several sources have reported to GSD that the SLED report is completed and expected back in Horry County shortly.
When that report finds no illegal actions by Gardner, as I confidently predict it will, is council then going to take the necessary personnel actions it must to hopefully ensure the county government and its council is never so embarrassed again?
We can only wait and watch.