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City attorney arrested, charged with misconduct in office

Cushman placed on administrative leave

Posted: September 20, 2012 8:47 p.m.
Updated: September 21, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Camden City Attorney Charles V.B. Cushman stood in a bond setting room at the Kershaw County Detention Center early Wednesday evening, not as a lawyer, but as the accused.

The S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) arrested Cushman, 59, earlier in the day, charging him with misconduct in office. According to a press release and an attached copy of SLED’s warrant, Cushman is accused of “intentionally dismissing and/or Nolle Prossing criminal charges under the condition that a ‘donation’ be made to the Camden City Drug Fund.”

SLED stated that the allegations against Cushman had been corroborated through “financial records, statements and documents.” Spokesman Thom Berry said the charge is considered a felony with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Berry said SLED received a request to begin investigating Cushman on Dec. 6, 2011, but did not disclose who made the request.

According to Camden City Manager Kevin Bronson, the Camden City Drug Fund is used to help investigate criminal cases, particularly those associated with drug activity.

“Money is, generally, put into the fund whenever we seize something related to criminal activity,” Bronson said. “There are some legal thresholds that need to be met. For example, if we seize a car, after the case is dispensed, we may be allowed to retain it in our possession, sell it and then put the proceeds into the city drug fund to be used for law enforcement expenditures.”

One of Cushman’s duties as city attorney is acting as the city’s municipal court prosecutor, which includes the prosecution of drug cases. In addition, he provides legal services and advice to city administrators and Camden City Council.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, council held a special called meeting specifically on Cushman’s arrest. Council called the meeting “to receive information and legal advice regarding a personnel matter” in executive session. Normally, such advice would be dispensed by Cushman. Instead, Chris Johnson -- an attorney with the city’s labor law firm of Gignilliat, Savitz & Bettis of Columbia -- advised council on the matter.

Following the executive session, Mayor Jeffrey Graham announced that Cushman had sent a letter to council asking that he be placed on administrative leave.

“I do not believe I am guilty of this charge and I intend to vigorously defend the charge,” Cushman wrote in the letter, provided by Bronson. “Nevertheless, I believe it is in your best interest as my client for me to be placed on administrative leave so that you can move forward without the distraction of this matter.”

Cushman went on to say that he would be willing to work with his “replacement” so that the city could continue to receive “the best legal representation.”

“I apologize for the embarrassment this causes the city of Camden and to each of you individually,” Cushman concluded.

Council voted unanimously to accept Cushman’s request, but added the stipulation that his leave be unpaid.

In a short statement after the vote, Graham said council appreciated Cushman’s request.

“(H)e and the council recognize that this is the appropriate action to maintain the highest level of professional standards to ensure that the residents of Camden have confidence in our city government,” Graham said.

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Bronson said it was not the city that asked for SLED to investigate Cushman.

“We had no information at the time the investigation was started that would have led us to ask for such an investigation,” Bronson said. “I have a copy of the warrant … but all I know is that SLED did an investigation involving (Cushman) acting as city prosecutor and how he handled certain cases, and that, based on the very brief language on the warrant, they believe the way he handled those to be improper.”

When asked if city officials believe Cushman did anything wrong, Bronson said, “We (normally) rely on the city attorney to provide us with legal advice, particularly in his areas of expertise.”

He also said city staff cooperated with SLED’s investigation “to the fullest extent we could … from the very first day of this.”

Cushman is not the first official with Kershaw County ties to be accused of dismissing charges in exchange for payment into some type of fund. In 2006, McBee Police Chief Joseph D. McLemore and Lynchburg Municipal Court Judge Fred D. Stephens -- who also served as a judge for the towns of Bethune and McBee -- were indicted on similar charges. McLemore and Stephens later admitted that they agreed to dismiss criminal charges against defendants who had been pulled over for speeding and other violations in exchange for surrendering money or property to the town of McBee. McLemore resigned as police chief. Stephens was initially suspended as judge by the court. He later pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison, which was suspended to 90 days in jail and three years’ probation. He also resigned.

Cushman’s alleged activity, like McLemore and Stephens’, may be in violation of an order handed down by S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean H. Toal in September 2003, two years before SLED alleges Cushman’s activities began.

In the order, Toal noted what she determined was the unauthorized use of “pretrial diversion programs” in South Carolina. In order to conform with state statutes, Toal ordered that only solicitors -- such as 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson -- are authorized to establish pretrial intervention programs.

“Accordingly, no other agency, municipality, county government or member of the judiciary, either circuit, municipal or magistrate, shall establish, recognize by use, refer, or permit the referral of any offender to any other pretrial intervention or other diversion program resulting in the non-criminal disposition of any offense not … approved by the solicitor,” Toal wrote.

In other words, only solicitors are allowed to dismiss charges against someone in return for some type of alternative penalty.

Toal did allow for magistrate, municipal and circuit court judges to effect pretrial intervention or diversion programs with a solicitor’s consent, and further ordered that those three types of judges not order the destruction of records related to a defendant’s arrest in such cases without the solicitor’s consent.

Cushman spent only a few hours in jail Wednesday, appearing before Kershaw County Magistrate Darrell Drakeford just after 5 p.m. Drakeford granted Cushman a $10,000 personal recognizance bond, meaning Cushman did not have to pay any cash to leave the detention center. He would forfeit that money only if he does not appear for future court dates.

According to the S.C. Bar Association’s website, Cushman has had no previous disciplinary actions. The site indicated that he graduated from University of South Carolina’s School of Law in 1982 and was admitted to the bar the same year. Bronson said Cushman began working as city attorney in November 1987.

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