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FOIA response reveals reason for Connell package

But doesn't say if it's the only one in last 10 years

Posted: July 5, 2018 4:27 p.m.
Updated: July 6, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Kershaw County’s response to a Chronicle-Independent S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveals the county paid out a $22,150 severance package to former Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) administrative assistant Samantha Connell in October 2016 in response to her allegations that she was sexually harassed by a county deputy.

Tuesday, Assistant Kershaw County Attorney Thomas Morgan provided a copy of an email Connell wrote in 2016 as part of the county’s response to the FOIA request.

The C-I learned of the payment while conducting research for a story on Connell’s arrest on embezzlement charges. The S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) arrested Connell on May 3, charging her with one count of embezzlement of public funds, value less than $10,000. According to SLED, the money was collected for registered sex offenders and meant to be deposited with the Kershaw County Treasurer’s Office. SLED’s warrant stated that Connell only “indicated” to being in possession of the only key to a drawer where the money was kept and “advised” that the deposits weren’t made as they should have been to the treasurer’s office.

Connell asked for the severance package in the email dated Sept. 19, 2016, to Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter, exactly four months after she left the KCSO on May 19, 2016. Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said Connell indicated her desire to leave his office one month earlier, on April 19, 2016.

“The events that took place while being an employee … has left me unemployed, (for) which I have filed for unemployment, but was denied due to the reason (that) I stated to others why I was leaving (was) due to being embarrassed to state the sexual harassment reason to others besides my superiors,” Connell wrote in the email.

She claimed that “every person in the command staff” at the KCSO knew why she was leaving, involving a deputy and “his employment being chosen over mine.” Connell claimed she could provide proof of her allegations.

Connell asked the county to provide her with a severance package equal to 30 months of her salary. She also asked that Morgan, who, she said, was “fully aware of these details,” be the one to compile the severance contract between her and Carpenter in order “to clear all parties of any lawsuits, retaliation and defamation.”

The C-I did not ask the county to provide Connell’s salary information, so it is unknown how much that initial request would have cost the county.

In addition to Connell’s email and a copy of the actual $22,150 check made out to her in 2016, Morgan included a copy of the Severance Agreement, Release and Waiver signed by Connell on Oct. 25, 2016, and by Carpenter on Nov. 1, 2016.

The county agreed to pay the $22,150 in return for Connell’s agreement not to sue the county, KCSO and “any past and present officials, agents, and employees of either entity” for “any and all causes of actions, claims, demands, costs, attorney’s fees, and all claims of any nature and kind whatsoever, known or unknown arising from Connell’s employment or separation” from the KCSO. It specifically included, but was not limited to “any and all charges arising under” the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Americans with Disabilities Act; Family Leave and Medical Act; S.C. Human Affairs Law; and the S.C. or U.S. constitutions, statutes, regulations and executive orders.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers sexual harassment claims.

This part of the agreement also had Connell agree to waive any further claims regarding her employment at the KCSO. She also agreed to handle any tax matters in conjunction with the severance package payment.

Connell also agreed to maintain the terms of the agreement “in the strictest confidence,” and to only reveal its terms to her attorneys, tax advisors, “and as may otherwise be required by law.”

In conjunction with that part of the agreement, the agreement stipulates that if Connell breached any provision -- including the confidentiality portion -- she would be required to pay the $22,150 back to the county, plus interest, damages, costs and attorneys fees.

Incomplete response

Despite the release of information surrounding Connell’s severance package, the C-I has informed the county it does not consider it a complete response to its FOIA request.

On May 11, the C-I specifically requested information regarding severance packages given to any former county employees, not just Connell, during the last 10 years, especially since the money for Connell’s package was drawn from the KCSO’s fuel account. The C-I expressed its belief the public deserved to know:

• how many former employees received severance packages;

• the value of those packages;

• from what accounts those packages were funded;

• the employees’ job titles and departments in which they worked immediately prior to receiving the severance packages (but not the former employees’ names); and

• whether or not those employees resigned, quit, were laid off or fired.

On June 6, the county indicated its willingness to respond to the FOIA request. However, Morgan indicated that the S.C. FOIA was only applicable to public documents “which are not chosen to be exempted by the public body.” The C-I reminded Morgan that this phrase does not exist in the S.C. FOIA; the closest such verbiage applies only to documents public bodies -- by a three-fourths favorable vote -- exempted prior to Jan. 20, 1987. This would not apply to documents within the time frame of the C-I’s request, since it only went back 10 years to May 2008.

Morgan’s response on behalf of the county Tuesday makes no mention, one way or the other, about other severance packages. The C-I, therefore, alerted him that the county needed to respond in one of the following three ways:

• State on the record that Connell is the only former employee to receive a severance package during the last 10 years.

• If other severance packages do exist, provide the requested information on any and all severance packages involving former county employees during the last 10 years.

• If other severance packages have been generated, but the county has decided not to provide that information, to cite a specific, applicable section of the S.C. FOIA as an explanation for not doing so.

The county’s deadline to respond to the C-I’s request is next Thursday, July 12.

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