South Carolina

Former Beaufort County councilman is registered to vote in both SC and NC. What happened?

State records show that Gerald “Jerry” Stewart, a former Beaufort County Council vice chairman and former chairman of the finance committee, is registered to vote in both South Carolina and North Carolina — a violation of N.C. law. In addition, copies of Beaufort County pay stubs obtained by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette show that in July 2018, Stewart changed his address to his North Carolina home, and received council payments there, while voting on Beaufort County issues.

Earlier this month, The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reported that Stewart — who served three consecutive terms on Beaufort County Council from 2007 through 2018 — accepted his county salary and stipends, voted on important county issues, and voted in a S.C. election despite residing in North Carolina. He also voted in North Carolina while serving as an elected official in Beaufort County.

After the story published, several residents, including another former council member, contacted 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone and requested a criminal investigation into Stewart’s residency, questioning the legitimacy of his votes on council.

S.C. state law requires council members to register to vote and reside in the county or district they’re elected to serve. To register to vote in N.C., voters must be resident of the state for at least 30 days prior to Election Day and must rescind their voter registration in any other states or counties. Stewart is still registered in both states.

“Any vote he casts...”

In his prominent roles with the county, Stewart held significant voting power during a contentious period on county council. Two of the biggest issues in the county during Stewart’s last six months on council, and while living in North Carolina, were the search for a county administrator to replace Gary Kubic and the subsequent fallout related to a $24,000 consulting contract given to former interim administrator Josh Gruber in July 2018 without council approval.

Gruber had left county employment in Aug. 2018 to become assistant town manager of Hilton Head Island. After some council members were alerted in September 2018 about Gruber’s two-month contract, several members debated its legality. Stewart, one of Gruber’s supporters, actively opposed an investigation into the contract.

On Oct. 8, 2018, county council voted on first reading a resolution to hire a lawyer to review the contract. “For those who are supporting this,” Stewart said that night, “what information do you expect to receive from outside legal counsel that was not received at the finance committee or that you would not receive from asking the individuals involved in the contract?” according to the meeting minutes.

On each reading, Stewart voted against the investigation. It passed on a 6-5 vote on Nov. 5, 2018. The investigation ultimately found that the county likely broke state law by not adhering to a “cooling off period” that prevents county officials, including Gruber, from working for the county for a year after leaving their job.

Another contentious council issue in which Stewart played an important role: The county narrowly approved the Pepper Hall Plantation development, which allowed owner Robert Graves to develop his Okatie Riverfront property and required the county to split stormwater costs and pay $2 million to pave and reroute a connecting road. Stewart, who was one of three members on the subcommittee that helped negotiate the agreement, voted for the development on first and second reading before recusing himself from his final county council meeting on Dec. 10, 2018 — the day the development was approved.

Hours before that council meeting, former state Rep. Edie Rodgers emailed council members: “Jerry Stewart is no longer a legal resident of Beaufort County, owns no property here, and for months has been a resident of North Carolina.”

“If this is true, shouldn’t he have made this public and resigned his seat so a special election could have been held, if necessary?” the email said. “If this is indeed true, any vote he casts as a member of Beaufort County Council would seem to be illegal. Maybe this needs to be addressed publicly.”

At the beginning of that night’s county council meeting, Stewart voted four times, approving amendments to the agenda. Moments later, he recused himself from the rest of the meeting due to “questions raised with respect to (his) residency in Beaufort County.” He said that although he has “numerous ties to the county in the form of having doctors here, legal advisors, investment advisors” and property, his lease in the county “was cut short.”

Active voter

Stewart was re-elected to his third term in 2014 and, until his term ended in late 2018, filed his address with the S.C. Ethics Commission as 1 Schooner Lane, Bluffton, S.C. 29909, off S.C. 170.

On Aug. 16, 2017, Stewart and his wife purchased a house in Lewisville, N.C., with a mortgage clause that stated it would be their primary residence within 60 days of signing. On Dec. 19, 2017, 125 days later, Stewart sold his home at 1 Schooner Lane.

The 2018 Directory of County Officials lists Stewart’s address as another home in Sun City — 20 Huquenin Lane.

On June 26, 2018, despite signing the mortgage clause in 2017 stating that his primary residence was in N.C., Stewart voted in the S.C. Republican Primary runoff using a voter registration that listed his address as 1 Schooner Lane — the home he sold in December.

Copies of Stewart’s pay stubs obtained by The Island Packet were addressed to his house in Lewisville, N.C. as early as mid-July 2018. Stewart continued to serve on council and receive his county salary and stipends for five months despite registering his address in N.C.

Stewart officially registered to vote in North Carolina on Sept. 19, 2018. He voted during a Beaufort County Council meeting in South Carolina five days later but voted as an N.C. elector in the Nov. 6 election.

Marie Smalls, director of the Beaufort County Board of Voter Registration, said Stewart never rescinded his voter registration in S.C. and is still an active voter in Beaufort County.

To legally vote in N.C., a resident must not be registered to vote in any other county or state.

Investigation?

After The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette published a story on Oct. 3 about Stewart failing to disclose that he registered to vote in, and was a resident of, another state while he served on the Beaufort County Council, at least three people contacted Solicitor Duffie Stone and asked for an investigation.

Port Royal resident Mare Baracco emailed Stone on Oct. 6 and requested his “office open an investigation into Gerald Stewart, for the purpose of recouping taxpayer monies alleged to have been unlawfully received, as well as putting the community on notice your office will not tolerate or reward conduct that undermines our election laws.”

Baracco said she first contacted the state election commission and was told to contact local law enforcement.

On the same day the article was published, former County Councilman Rick Caporale emailed Stone: “In light of today’s article in the Island Packet ... I would ask that you look into the fairly serious legal questions and issues that have arisen with regard to Mr. Stewart’s North Carolina residency vis-à-vis his position as an elected member of Beaufort County Council. There are facts here we can’t ignore, and I believe law exists to address these issues.”

Caporale followed up his email with a text to Stone. Stone texted back on Oct. 17, “I have already forwarded this information to the appropriate people.”

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A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.
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