Individual AMDC members, exec director say they should be dismissed from Pascalis lawsuit

Nov. 4—The individual members and staff of the Aiken Municipal Development Commission have argued that they should be dismissed from the lawsuit over Project Pascalis because they're not the proper parties for the plaintiffs to sue.

Attorneys for commission members Keith Wood, Chris Verenes, David Jameson, Marty Gillam, Philip Merry, the Rev. Doug Slaughter and executive director Tim O'Briant recently asked for the court to dismiss them from the lawsuit filed on July 5.

Project Pascalis was the city's name for an estimated $75 million redevelopment project focused on the block bounded by Laurens Street, Richland Avenue, Newberry Street and Park Avenue in downtown Aiken.

Proposed plans called for the demolition of the vacant Hotel Aiken and a building next to it on Laurens Street and the construction of a 100-room hotel in their place. The Holley House and several buildings located between it and Newberry Street would be demolished to make way for an apartment complex and a parking garage. The city's former municipal building would be expanded into a conference center.

The city's preferred developer, RPM Development Partners, sent notice on Sept. 14 that it was withdrawing from the project; and the Aiken Municipal Development Commission voted to stop the project on Sept. 29.

The lawsuit challenging the actions of the Aiken City Council, Aiken Municipal Development Commission, Aiken Design Review Board, RPM Development Partners, Raines Company, Aiken Economic Development Director Tim O'Briant and City Attorney Gary Smith on the project was filed July 5.

The plaintiffs in the suit are David Blake, Luis Rinaldini, former Aiken City Councilman Dick Dewar, Jenne Stoker, Beatrice McGhee, Gail King, the Historic Aiken Foundation, the Green Boundary Foundation and the South Carolina Public Interest Foundation.

The defendants are the city of Aiken, the individual city council members, the Aiken Municipal Development Commission, AMDC individual members, AMDC Executive Director and Aiken Economic Development Director Tim O'Briant, the Aiken Design Review Board, its individual members, RPM Development Partners, Raines Company and its subsidiary Raines Development.

Attorneys Dwight Drake, Matthew Abee and Madison Guyton moved on behalf of Aiken Municipal Development Commission Vice Chairman Chris Verenes for dismissal on Oct. 19.

Attorney David Morrison moved at 3:58 p.m. on Oct. 28 to dismiss former Aiken Municipal Development Commission members Catina Broadwater, Stuart MacVean and Chad Matthews from the suit.

Morrison moved at 4 p.m. on Oct. 28 to dismiss the remaining commission members — Wood, Gillam, Jameson, Merry, Slaughter and Verenes — from the suit.

Attorney Michael Wren moved at midnight on Nov. 1 to dismiss Aiken Municipal Development Commission Executive Director and Aiken Economic Development Director Tim O'Briant from the suit.

Requests for dismissal

Verenes is listed three times in the complaint filed on July 5. In paragraphs 127, 187(c) and 199 (the complaint is over 90 pages long), the plaintiffs say that Verenes was one of the Aiken Municipal Development Commission who had interests in Project Pascalis and voted on the project despite a conflict of interest which violates the Ethics Government and Campaign Reform Act.

"For example, Chris Verenes is CEO of Security Federal Bank, which owns branches all over Aiken and one directly across from the Hotel Aiken and has loans and other arrangements with numerous owners of property in the Pascalis Block and the blocks immediately around it," the plaintiffs said in paragraph 127.

In the motion, Verenes says the plaintiff's claims that he violated the act fail.

First, Verenes argues that he did not violate the act. He says that he recused himself from the votes to approve the beginning of Project Pascalis in late November 2021.

Second, he argues that the Ethics act does not allow for a private cause of action.

Third, Verenes argues that the court does not have jurisdiction to enforce the act because enforcement of the act is up to the state ethics commission.

In the alternative (should the motion for dismissal fail), Verenes asks to be substituted out as a party in the suit because he was acting in his official capacity with the commission, therefore the commission is the proper party for the suit.

Broadwater, MacVean and Matthews said they should be dismissed from the suit because they are no longer commissioners and they don't plan to become commissioners in the future.

"They are sued in their official capacity as Commissioners only, which means simply that they are the alter ego of the Aiken Municipal Development Commission," Morrison said in the motion. "The AMDC is a Defendant in this case. Any request for relief against these Defendants is moot and would have no effect. As former Commissioners in their official capacities only, they are not proper parties to this lawsuit."

Morrison adds the suit should also be dismissed as to the three former commissioners because their actions were taken as an alter ego of the Aiken Municipal Development Commission and suing both the commission and them as members is duplicative.

Morrision's argument to dismiss the remaining commission members is similar to the argument made for dismissal of individual city council members in August.

Basically, he argues that the proper party for the suit is the commission itself under the South Carolina law for suing governmental entities. Therefore, the inclusion of the individual commission members is duplicative.

Morrison also argues that any allegations of violations of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act must be made against a public body and not its individual members.

Jameson also moved for dismissal because there's no private cause of action under the ethics act.

O'Briant uses a similar argument to the one made by Wood, Verenes, Jameson, Gillam, Merry and Slaughter. He says that his actions were made as the alter ego of the city or commission. Thus, the city and commission are the proper parties to the suit and, therefore, including O'Briant would be duplicative.