South Carolina

County councilman asks SC attorney general to investigate Richland County

A Richland County Council member has written Attorney General Alan Wilson asking for an immediate criminal investigation into allegations about the conduct of current and past council members raised by fired former administrator Gerald Seals.

Councilman Joe Walker sent a letter to Wilson on Monday requesting “you immediately open a criminal investigation into these allegations.” Walker’s letter cited a story in The State last week outlining Seals’ accusations of misconduct and “irregularities” by members of Richland County Council at the time of his April 2018 firing.

A copy of the letter was also sent to U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon, as well as other members of Richland County Council.

In the letter and in a conversation with The State, Walker said he wanted to clear up the claims he says have lingered over county business for years.

“There has been too much discussion and speculation over the last several years about improper actions at the county and for the good of the people an in-depth investigation needs to happen that will either put the persons whose actions break the law in the hands of the prosecutors or clear everyone’s name,” Walker wrote.

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He also asks Lydon to investigate whether any federal laws have been broken.

Seals’ letter came to light as part of a recent court filing in a lawsuit challenging his $1 million payout from Richland County after he was fired by a 6-5 vote of the council. In the letter, the former administrator alleges unethical conduct by council members, including one councilman’s involvement in the purchase of land for a county park without council or the administrator’s approval.

When asked in a deposition if Seals would have said any more in a planned public hearing for the lawsuit, Seals said, “I would have used names.”

The same lawsuit recently uncovered text messages between Seals and Councilwoman Dalhi Myers in which Myers encouraged Seals to “go big” in his negotiations with council for a payout, including some texts that overlap with the time of a closed session of council to discuss Seals’ firing.

A partially redacted transcript of the texts was provided by Seals to attorneys seeking to overturn his payout. Those attorneys are now seeking to compel Seals to turn over all of the text exchange.

On Monday, Myers said she supported Walker’s request and “hope that all who broke the law to fire Seals, and those who acted in their own self interests thereafter, are exposed.”

“He told the truth,” Myers said of Seals, “and he could have told even more.”

Myers said she was willing to sit for a deposition into the matter. Walker also said Myers “deserves the opportunity to put those texts in context.”

The attorney general’s office confirmed Monday they had received Walker’s letter and were reviewing it.

Reached by The State on Monday, Seals said he was unaware of Walker’s letter, but that “If the attorney general or whoever wants to talk to me, I will cooperate with him as I have with anyone else.”

In the April 14, 2018, letter, Seals hits back at council members who had voted to fire him less than two weeks earlier.

▪ To the charge that he was sleeping on the job, Seals says that while an unnamed council member “yelled almost non-stop” during an hours-long meeting in the administration office, “I then hung my head and closed my eyes again, praying, while the incivility continued.”

“In other words, one of Council’s reasons for termination is that I refuse to attend the yelling bellicose vituperations of one of its members,” Seals wrote.

Seals says he then left the meeting and “conducted a wonderful Bible Study.”

▪ Another council member “chastised me for disciplining 150 employees for speeding in County vehicles.”

▪ One member had to be told a request “for a group hug with two female employee(s) created discomfort and could potentially (be) interpreted as sexual innuendo and sexual harassment.”

▪ He accuses one council member of pushing for “an illegal $126,010 property purchase by a contractor with public funds and titled it to his private business with the intent to transfer the property to the County.”

Seals doesn’t identify the council member, but in April of last year, The State detailed accusations that former Councilman Norman Jackson was involved in paying $120,000 to the private engineering firm Chao and Associates to purchase four acres adjacent to Pinewood Lake Park, in the expectation the county would take over the property.

Seals said the county had no agreement to purchase the property with Chao and claimed Jackson pressured the projects manager into directing an illegal purchase. Jackson denied any involvement in the purchase and insisted Seals approved buying land for the park.

Council chairman Paul Livingston said he supported an investigation, but said he hoped the investigation could be narrowed in scope, as neither Seals’ original letter nor Walker’s request name any individuals.

“I don’t know specifically, what is it? What are we looking for?” Livingston said. “It needs to be more focused and specific. If it’s not, you could just come up with something every day to investigate.”

This isn’t the first time state law enforcement has been asked to get involved in Richland County. The state grand jury began an investigation of the county’s controversial penny tax program in 2017, after the S.C. Department of Revenue challenged how the road improvement program was being administered.

Last year, the county council asked SLED to investigate after an assistant county administrator claimed Jackson “bullied and threatened” her during a closed-door council meeting.

SLED could not be reached for comment Monday about the roads investigation or the bullying allegation.

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, served on Richland County Council and also tried cases as the county solicitor. He thought the allegations raised by Seals’ memo are “troubling” and merit review by the attorney general’s office.

“There may be nothing amiss at Richland County,” Harpootlian said. “But if you read Seals’ letter, the allegations describe conduct that might be close to criminal.”

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, and that of child killer Tim Jones.