Exclusive: Horry County attorney-fees rift widens; council could vote on member’s contract

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A debacle among Horry County Council members that’s ostensibly about how much the county pays outside attorneys for various legal services deepened on Friday and appears poised to escalate to a stage in which the council could discuss a business contract one member has with Horry County government, and could vote on whether or not it’s legal for council members to have business contracts with the county at all.

That escalation brings to the surface tensions among County Council members that have been “boiling under the surface for a while now,” according to interviews and emails obtained by The Sun News.

The tensions among council members surfaced most recently Tuesday, when a majority of members voted to end a regular meeting of council early before members could discuss a budget item labeled “discussion of county legal fees.”

The Sun News previously reported that discussion was supposed to be about how much money the county pays to outside attorneys that assist with myriad legal matters, including investigations and lawsuits, and which firms are hired. Council member Al Allen said earlier this week that he wanted to discuss that information at Tuesday’s council meeting because he believes it should be made public. Allen also said he first sought that information after local attorneys approached him about how they might win contracts for legal work with the county.

On Tuesday, Council member Dennis DiSabato called for the meeting to end before the council could discuss that information, or present it to the public. He and other council members have since explained that they believe the information can be made public, though not without proper context. DiSabato said he moved to adjourn the meeting early to prevent council from discussing that information without context.

Council Chairman Johnny Gardner was angered by DiSabato’s action, and rebuked him in an email the following day, which The Sun News obtained a copy of.

“You are not the judge of what may or may not be discussed during a council meeting,” Gardner wrote to DiSabato.

But on Friday, a statement issued by Gardner, as well as emails exchanged by several other members of council, ratcheted up those tensions and led to DiSabato calling for a debate on a mosquito-spraying contract Horry County currently has with Allen Aviation. That company, based in Aynor, is co-owned by Allen and his wife, Shanda Allen, who serves on the Horry County Board of Education. DiSabato, in an email, also wrote that he had instructed county staff to draft an ordinance that would prevent members of council or other government employees from having such contracts with the county in the future.

Aside from the salaries they draw from their positions on County Council and the school board, Allen Aviation is listed as the primary source of income for both Al and Shanda Allen, according to state ethics forms.

In a reply email to DiSabato, Allen noted that his contract with the county was established before he was a council member, has been previously investigated by the county and the South Carolina Ethics Commission and that it’s both legal and ethical.

That tensions among council members are rising now is significant. The council is currently tasked with passing next year’s county budget before the end of June, and Gardner has previously said the council would take up the matter of impact fees again soon, a key policy that could help the county respond to the growth. Gardner and Allen, along with five other members of council, are also up for re-election next year.

“I think a lot of this has been boiling under the surface for a while now,” said DiSabato in an interview Friday. “I wouldn’t call them battle lines so much as a difference of opinion and a personality clash among people on the council.

How we got here; Gardner issues statement

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Gardner said he wished to “set the record straight on the events that led up to Tuesday night.”

According to Gardner’s statement, Allen asked the Horry County attorney, Arrigo Carotti, for information about what the county pays outside attorneys, but had difficulty obtaining that information. Once he experienced those difficulties, Gardner wrote, he agreed to place an item on the council’s Tuesday evening agenda to discuss those legal fees. Other council members, including DiSabato and Johnny Vaught, have said that Allen did in fact have access to the information ahead of Tuesday’s meeting but refused to review it, wishing to discuss it publicly instead.

According to Vaught, after Allen made his request for the information, Carotti approached him and said he believed the information should be kept from public view until council members could review it and make a determination. Carotti approached Vaught, Vaught said, because the administration committee he chairs would have a role in making that decision. Vaught said that he agreed to invite Allen to an executive session meeting of the administration committee where the group of council members could review the information, and decide whether or not to make it public. Allen said he couldn’t attend that meeting because he was out of town on business.

Vaught said the plan was, after the administration committee reviewed the information, to have all council members review and discuss it in a larger executive session, and then take a public vote on whether or not to release it to the public. He said his position on the information is that it was attorney-client privileged until council reviewed it and voted to make it public.

“I could have told Arrigo on my own to turn it loose ... but too many council members said they were concerned,” Vaught said. “Until we knew more it should stay as council’s property and should not go public.”

Vaught and other council members said Allen declined multiple chances to review the information prior to Tuesday evening. First, Vaught said, he offered to meet with Allen and Carotti and have the three of them review the information. That meeting didn’t happen. Then came the administration committee meeting. Finally, according to Vaught, Allen, and others, a third meeting was arranged for Tuesday morning between Allen, Gardner, Carotti and County Administrator Steve Gosnell. Allen showed up to that meeting, but upon seeing that other council members were there, walked out.

“I then very politely stood up and stated, ‘I’m not going to play this game, I’ll ask my questions this evening,’ and walked out,” he wrote in an email outlining his version of events.

DiSabato, Vaught and others, sensing that Allen may raise concerns about the information without having previously reviewed it, said they voted to adjourn the meeting early to prevent such a situation. Two county sources also told The Sun News they voted to adjourn the meeting because they worried Allen and Gardner could use concerns about the county’s attorney fees as pretext to want to fire Carotti, and possibly Gosnell.

“It seemed to me that they wanted an information dump without context, and the only reason you do that is to make someone look bad,” DiSabato said Friday.

But Gardner, in his statement, refuted that notion.

“I was not aware of any such attempt or speculation of it until I received a call from the reporter and later read it in the story,” Gardner wrote, referencing The Sun News’ earlier reporting. “I was appalled that such speculation should be voiced by any county council member or county staff personnel.”

Gardner said that Allen had made “a legitimate request” that others then put up “roadblocks” to stop.

“Any legitimate request for information by a county council member to county staff should be immediately processed without conspiracy theories developed about why the information is requested or roadblocks being put in the path of the release of the information,” Gardner wrote.

He continued: “I have no idea why Councilman Vaught got into the middle of this, diverted the information to an executive session of the (administration) committee and told fellow council members and the media the information was subject to attorney client privilege. It is not. I have no idea why Mr. Carotti, Mr. Vaught and Mr. Disabato felt this information should be withheld from Mr. Allen and should not be public. That is a question you need to ask them.”

Emails between council members ratchet up tensions

Prior to Gardner’s statement on Friday, a number of emails sent and circulated among council members raised the tensions begun Tuesday.

Responding to Gardner’s rebuke of his adjourning Tuesday’s meeting, DiSabato wrote that he took that action because he questioned Allen’s methods in obtaining and disseminating the attorney fee information.

“Mr. Allen insists that he simply wanted an opportunity to review the information; however, he had been given multiple opportunities to review this information, prior to Tuesday’s meeting, and failed to take those opportunities,” DiSabato wrote. “If Mr. Allen’s purpose for requesting the information was pure, why did he fail to take any of the aforementioned opportunities to inspect the information?”

DiSabato went on to question Gardner’s leadership as chairman of the council.

“You have, since taking office, used opportunities such as this to exert political pressure on council to take actions that would further your own agenda,” DiSabato wrote. “The fact is, you have lost all control of this council and have failed to effectively lead this governing body since you were elected.”

DiSabato said the issue of whether or not to make the attorney fee information public was not one of transparency but one of Gardner’s leadership. In the spirit of discussing county finances publicly, DiSabato wrote, he wished to discuss county contracts awarded to council members and other members of county government.

“I believe it is important for the public to understand exactly how much of our tax revenue is being spent with Allen Aviation, in particular, for mosquito spraying contracts, as well as how those contracts are awarded,” he wrote.

DiSabato added that he had instructed county staff to draft an ordinance “to prevent the county from further contracts with companies owned by council members and/or their immediate family.” DiSabato said he expects the ordinance to be presented at the administration committee’s next meeting.

In an emailed response, Allen called DiSabato’s request to discuss Allen Aviation’s contract publicly “ignorant and uninformed accusations” and detailed how he had established the contract with the county 20 years ago, before he was on council, and that both the county and state had investigated it. Both he and his wife list the contract — worth $77,351 over several years — on their state ethics forms. Allen wrote that he’s taken care to recuse himself from all votes and discussions about the county’s contract with his company, and that he sought the contract initially because such services weren’t widely available to Horry County in the past.

Allen further wrote that he was prepared to discuss the contract publicly at council’s next meeting.

“As to you making threats and accusations against a privately owned business and fellow Council member, I would ask that you ‘cease and desist’ immediately and request an apology from you for the other owner and employees of Allen Aviation,” Allen wrote.

Allen declined to comment beyond his email on Friday.

A puzzling assertion

Included in the email chain The Sun News obtained was also a puzzling assertion from another council member.

In an email, Council member Cam Crawford wrote that he had “learned a particular council member” had “probed” Carotti about when he planned to retire and “going on to express interest in his job.”

Crawford and Vaught both said the “particular council member” was Gardner.

“This is disturbing to me, and I believe this incident should be examined further considering everything that’s occurred this week,” Crawford wrote. “It may be appropriate to learn more about what was discussed with Arrigo in a future executive session.”

It’s not clear why Gardner may have been interested in Carotti’s position. Gardner works as a professional attorney, largely doing public defense work.

Gardner didn’t return a phone call seeking further comment. Horry County spokesperson Kelly Moore said the county had no comment on that, or any other issues raised by the council members.

Gardner responds further

Gardner then responded to DiSabto’s missive.

“Let me be frank with you. Your actions Tuesday night were despicable. Trying now to cover that up with an attacking email is more despicable,” Gardner wrote.

Gardner said in his email that DiSabato didn’t do enough to communicate with him and Allen prior to Tuesday’s meeting about the attorney fee information and argued that a majority of council members only voted to adjourn the meeting because they had “misinformation given to them.” Gardner also refuted DiSabato’s assertion that he’s exerted political pressure on the council in the past.

“You accuse me of using political pressure to further my agenda. Was it not you who proclaimed you would be my mortal enemy on council? Whose agenda is really being promoted here?” Gardner wrote.

“Your actions over the last few days and in this email come from the gutter. Attacking a fellow council member with media sound bites to give the appearance Councilman Allen and his company have done something unethical or illegal is a new low even for you Mr. Disabato.”

Gardner also refuted, generally, DiSabato’s raising of the issue in the first place, and the fact that he spoke publicly about it to reporters.

“You say I have lost leadership with council and you’re entitled to your opinion as am I and I believe you have lost all respect of council,” Gardner wrote. “For the record, your bullying of council and staff will no longer be tolerated. I don’t care whether you respect me or not but you will respect the chair. That’s from one attorney to another attorney.”

DiSabato, in an interview, said he was ready to move on from the squabbling.

“We have important business to attend to on the council and this isn’t important,” he said. “It’s time, in my opinion, to put petty squabbles aside and get back to the business of the county.”

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