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County answers second FOIA request

Most post-employment payments dealt with lawsuits

Posted: July 23, 2018 4:01 p.m.
Updated: July 24, 2018 1:00 a.m.

In addition to the $22,150 severance package paid to former Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) administrative assistant Samantha Connell, Kershaw County has made a total of 10 post-employment payments to former county employees.

Half of the payments are settlements of five lawsuits filed against current Sheriff James Matthews for defamation during his first year in office by former Sheriff Steve McCaskill and four other sheriff’s office or county government employees. Another settled a lawsuit filed against McCaskill by a former deputy for wrongful termination. Of the other four, one dealt with a worker’s compensation claim and that employee’s subsequent termination; another dealt with bodily injuries allegedly suffered at the hands of supervisors; one with “personal and reputational injuries” suffered while working as a department head for the county; and one which could not be determined because no litigation appeared to be attached to the settlement.

Kershaw County emailed the 10 releases and waivers constituting those settlements as its answer to a second S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by the Chronicle-Independent in the wake of learning of Connell’s October 2016 severance package. The county had until Aug. 3 to indicate how it would respond to the latest FOIA request; depending on when it met that obligation, it could have had until Sept. 7 to provide documentation. Instead, the county -- through Assistant County Attorney Thomas Morgan -- provided its answer and documentation on Friday.

According to the county’s response to the C-I’s first FOIA request, Connell originally requested a severance package equal to 30 months of her salary in an email she sent to Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter. In that September 2016 email, Connell claimed she left the sheriff’s office due to being sexually harassed by a deputy. In the email, Connell asked that the severance package be drawn up “to clear all parties of any lawsuits, retaliations and defamation.”

Connell left the sheriff’s office in May 2016 and was subsequently denied unemployment, reportedly because she quit and was not fired. Several months after receiving the $22,150 severance package, in early 2017, the sheriff’s office found irregularities in its budget. A combination of internal and extra-agency investigations resulted in the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) charging Connell with one count of embezzlement of public funds less than $10,000. According to SLED’s warrant, the money was collected from registered sex offenders and was supposed to be deposited with the county treasurer’s office. Connell reportedly “indicated” she was the only one to hold a key to the drawer where the money was kept and “acknowledged” deposits weren’t made.

The C-I determined that Morgan’s response to the first FOIA request was insufficient because it included no information -- one way or the other -- about other severance packages paid out during the last 10 years. Morgan indicated if the newspaper wanted to learn of other post-employment payouts, it would have to file another FOIA request to cover any such payments beyond “severance packages.”

Five Matthews lawsuits

Five hours after being sworn in as the county’s sheriff on Jan. 4, 2011, Matthews addressed Kershaw County Council on several points. During that appearance, he stated that he wanted the bulk of more than $500,000 in victims advocate funds to be disbursed to him so that he could create a victims advocate unit. He vehemently opposed any attempt to provide more of these funds to the Kershaw County Magistrate’s Office, calling that office “merely a notifier” and claimed that there were “inadequate policies, procedures and training for victims advocate personnel” at the sheriff’s office under McCaskill. Matthews also claimed the sheriff’s office had misused such funds and had no procedures for victims assistance work.

During that same county council appearance, Matthews claimed deputies under McCaskill had wrecked more patrol cars than in other counties and drove them for personal use; that the narcotics unit had “basically, been non-existent” for several months prior to his taking office; and that evidence procedures by the narcotics unit had caused the solicitor’s office not to pursue cases.

These and other statements made by Matthews led to the five defamation lawsuits filed against him during the months to come. As the C-I reported at various points in time, in each of the five cases, the county -- through the S.C. Association of Counties Property and Liability Trust (“the Trust”) -- settled the lawsuits as follows:

• David Dowey, former head of narcotics under McCaskill -- sued for $2 million; settled for $45,000.

• Eugene “Gene” Hartis, former county magistrate -- sued for $4 million; settled for $20,000.

• Barbara Jones, former KCSO victims advocate under McCaskill -- sued for $2 million; settled for $35,000.

• Delores Leonard, a former magistrate’s office employee -- sued for $2 million; settled for $30,000.

• Steve McCaskill, former sheriff -- sued for $2 million; settled for $75,000.

One McCaskill lawsuit

Less than a year before anyone filed a lawsuit against Matthews, two former deputies filed suits against McCaskill. James Lyn Miller and Tick Wilson both claimed they had been wrongfully terminated by McCaskill following the June 2010 Republican primary for sheriff. McCaskill had thrown his support behind his captain of investigations, David Thomley, for the nomination. Miller and Wilson said McCaskill fired them after Thomley lost the primary to Matthews, allegedly because they either supported one of the other candidates or refused to say which candidate they supported.

That November, the Trust settled the suits for the county for $50,000 each.

Morgan included a copy of Miller and his wife’s “Release of All Claims and Agreement” with the county in exchange for that $50,000. In that agreement, the Millers agreed that the $50,000 was paid as “non-wage based damages for alleged personal injuries, including injury to reputation, arising out of the alleged wrongful discharge of James Lyn Miller as a deputy sheriff with the KCSO…” Miller also agreed not to seek further employment with the KCSO under McCaskill. That did not bar him from seeking employment with Matthews later.

Matthews later confirmed for various media that both Miller and Wilson had supported his candidacy. He hired Wilson in 2011 while Miller went on to serve as a police chief in Bethune.

Morgan did not include Wilson’s settlement among the 10 post-employment payouts. Also, neither of the original lawsuits filed by Wilson or Miller appears in the online clerk of court’s database.

Former county planner

John Newman served as the county’s Planning and Zoning Department director from June 2006 to December 2012. The C-I reported in early 2013 that County Administrator Vic Carpenter was looking for a new county planner, but wouldn’t state why Newman left, citing it as a “personnel matter.”

It turns out Carpenter terminated Newman’s employment in December 2012. In a lawsuit filed the following month, Newman claimed not only that Carpenter had “criticized and demeaned him” for insisting on following lawful procedures, but had made him feel “compelled and coerced” on at least four occasions to do things in violation of the county’s zoning and land use regulations.

On behalf of Carpenter, the county’s answer stated that, in one case, Carpenter felt the county could exempt itself from its own rules. The others, the answer said, claimed Carpenter merely asked Newman to find existing policies that could be used to accomplish certain tasks with the idea that council might need to revise certain zoning classifications or other matters in the future.

In the civil filing, Newman asked the court to award him $250,000 as compensation for the damage done to him and his reputation when he was fired.

According to Newman’s “Waiver and Release of All Claims and Agreement” Morgan included with Friday’s release of information, Newman received $17,500 from the Trust as a “non-wage based payment to resolve (Newman’s) claim for the personal and reputational injuries” alleged in his civil action.

Bodily injuries

Two of the other agreements deal with claims of bodily injury while working for the county.

Joseph Clyburn Price worked with the county’s public works department for approximately a year and half starting in 2008. In a civil action filed against the county in 2010, Price claimed that, from the moment he was hired, he was subjected to “taunts, threats, harassment, hostile and abusive encounters, coercive and oppressive conduct, and general bullying tactics” by his crew chief, supervisor and department director.

This all came to a head, Price claimed, on Feb. 2, 2010, when the crew chief and supervisor asked to speak to him privately after work hours in the supervisor’s office. There, he claimed, he was verbally abused for 45 minutes until the department head -- whose office was next door -- suddenly threw an “explosive object into the room, causing it to explode around (Price’s) face and where he was sitting.” Price stated in the filing that he thought he had been shot. The department head told everyone to go home. Price said he did, but took a combination of valium and Ambien because he couldn’t sleep and was suffering a severe migraine from the experience. He claimed he overdosed and was taken to the hospital.

Price also claimed that while he was placed on emergency medical leave, former County Administrator Clay Young visited him in the hospital and told him he would continue to be paid. However, Price said in the lawsuit that by June 2010, the county’s human resources office was demanding that he return to work or not be paid and that he needed to pay back the money he received while on leave.

In its answer to Price’s suit, the county claimed Price contributed his own negligence to his injuries and that Young only told Price that he was being advanced the leave pay because he had not accrued enough leave and that any further leave he accrued would be applied to the deficit.

The county even claimed that Young never visited Price in the hospital.

Price did not ask for an exact amount of money, instead asking for a judgment of actual and punitive damages to compensate him for his injuries and damages, a further amount equal to three times the full amount of “improperly withheld or unpaid” wages, and for “other relief as the court may deem proper and just.”

The Trust paid Price $30,000 as “non-wage based compensation for bodily injury … (and) personal and emotional injuries alleged” in his civil action.

More recently, in May 2017, Richard Whitley, a former part-time county recycling center operator, received a payment from the Trust. It was, according to Whitley’s “Release and Indemnification Agreement,” a “settlement” and “the compromise of a doubtful and disputed claim, and that the payment made is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the” count. It went on to state that the payment constituted “damages on account of physical injuries or sickness” Whitley suffered while working for the county.

In his civil action, filed in May 2016, Whitley, who had worked for the county since 2002, claimed two men attacked him at the recycling center where he worked. They allegedly attacked him after he told them they could not park on the grass outside the center or wash the bed liner of their truck there. He said in the action that he suffered physical injuries that “required immediate medical attention and he was transferred to a local hospital.”

Whitley claimed in the action that he filed two worker’s compensation claims, the first on Jan. 14, 2015, for “head trauma, facial trauma, neck pain, back pain and psychological issues,” which was denied. Within 11 days, he claimed he received a “first warning” from the county for “rudeness to customers/coworkers” claiming he had been the aggressor in the Dec. 28, 2014, altercation. He then filed a second worker’s compensation claim on March 17, 2015, and claims he was fired the very next day.

The county denied virtually every stipulation Whitley made, even going so far as to state that any award of punitive damages to Whitley would be unconstitutional.

Like Price, Whitley did not ask for a specific amount of money, instead asking a jury to determine what damages to award him from the county.

The Trust paid Price $2,500 as a settlement.

Employee unknown

Lastly, in April 2013, a former county employee named Diane Alexander signed a “Release of all Claims, Covenant Not to Sue, and Agreement” in exchange for retroactively placing her in a paid leave status starting March 13, 2013, and not expiring until June 30, 2013. She would then “irrevocably” resign her employment with the county.

Since the agreement does not mention Alexander’s rate of pay at the time, it cannot be determined how much money Alexander received in exchange for signing the release. Nor is it known in what capacity or for what department Alexander worked. The release, in turn, had Alexander agree not to sue the county, any present and past officials or agents and employees, including, but not limited to suits that would fall under the S.C. Human Affairs Law, S.C. Payment of Wages Act, S.C. Whistleblowers Act, U.S. Civil Rights Act, U.S. Rehabilitation Act, or U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.

The C-I could find no litigation Alexander had filed against the county of any kind. In fact, a search of the Kershaw County Clerk of Court’s online records could find no trace of a “Diane Alexander” involved in any civil or criminal case in Kershaw County.

In all, during the past 10 years and including Connell’s “severance package,” the county has paid out at least $327,000 in post-employment payments. If the county had not settled, it could have paid out more than $12 million. As of 2010, the county was paying $425,000 annually into the Trust as its litigation insurer. This means Kershaw County has spent roughly in the neighborhood of $5 million, counting for possible increases since 2010, to handle cases like these.


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