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Column: Still waiting on some answers

Posted: July 26, 2018 1:24 p.m.
Updated: July 27, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Since the news broke in May of former Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) administrative assistant Sam Connell’s arrest for allegedly embezzling no more than $10,000 from a sex offender registry fund, I’ve been trying to get answers to all sorts of questions.

Then I learned Connell received a $22,150 severance package from the county about a year and seven months before her arrest.

More questions.
I’ve spent nearly three months trying to answer just one of those questions: Was Connell’s severance package unique? Using a 10-year time frame similar to what the C-I did for its economic development package in March, I wanted to know if the county had provided similar severance packages to other employees.

It took two S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to get the answer. It took two because the county (more specifically, the assistant county attorney) decided to be very ... specific ... about interpreting the language I’d used in my first FOIA request, hinging on the phrase “severance packages.”

The surprise in that first answer was documentation pointing to why Connell left the KCSO in 2016 and then demanded a severance package: she claimed she’d been sexually harassed by a deputy.

Meanwhile, it seemed that the county was claiming Connell’s severance package was the only one during the last 10 years. But, that just didn’t feel right.

So, after a couple of back-and-forth emails regarding the definition of “severance packages,” I sent another FOIA request, this time for any “post-employment payments” beyond what someone should expect from any remaining benefits.
And, as I reported Tuesday, there were 10 such times. All of them, save for perhaps one, were tied to lawsuits filed by former employees against the county for one reason or another.

So, the answer to my initial question -- was Connell’s severance package unique? -- is, likely, “yes,” after all.

(I say “likely” because for one of the 10 settlements, I could find no corresponding litigation; in fact, I couldn’t find anything connected to that individual. It’s possible that former employee’s experience is similar to Connell’s in some way.)

Connell’s is unique because she never filed a lawsuit. She apparently threatened to, if one reads a September 2016 email she sent to Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter that way. It’s easy to conclude that the county worked out her severance package to gain her promise not to sue the county for the harm she said she suffered from the alleged sexual harassment. To be honest, I’m not surprised at all; as our editorial mentioned Tuesday, this is how both government and business handle such matters. The difference was that Connell hadn’t sued yet.

But, we can’t ignore her allegation. Neither the KCSO nor the county is speaking on the record about what may or may not have happened before Connell left in 2016. Is the allegation true? If so, did the sheriff take action regarding the offending deputy? If it isn’t true, why would Connell make such an allegation?

Then there’s her arrest. Let me make it clear again: that happened a year and seven months after she received her severance package. It wasn’t until early January 2017 that an internal review of the KCSO’s budget reportedly revealed a discrepancy in the sex offender registry fund.

Two months later, in March 2017 and after a third-party audit, the KCSO contacted the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) saying it might have a “criminal problem” on its hands. Another two months after that, in May 2017, SLED handed over its findings to the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

The case sat at the solicitor’s office for 11 months before being shunted to the 11th circuit due to alleged financial irregularities at the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office.

Finally, on May 3, 2018 -- almost exactly two years after she left the KCSO -- SLED charged Connell with embezzlement.

I, for one, don’t know what to make of this. I can’t come to any conclusions, because there are still so many unanswered questions.

Did Connell actually embezzle the money? If so, what was her motivation? If not, why would the KCSO, SLED and the 11th Circuit Solicitor’s Office think she had?

According to online court records, the only action in Connell’s case is that her attorney, Jack Swerling, filed a motion for discovery and inspection about two weeks after her arrest. We will have to wait until Connell pleads guilty or not guilty and whatever fallout comes from that.

We have some, but not all, of the answers about this case. Connell’s severance package is unique; the county has paid out more than $300,000 in post-employment payments, primarily as lawsuit settlements; an allegation of sexual harassment has been made; an allegation of embezzlement has been made.

I can only hope the remaining answers are as relatively benign as what I reported Tuesday.

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