By Stan Welch
The South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether a lawsuit filed by Rick Freemantle was incorrectly dismissed by Judge Cordell Maddox almost two years ago.
The lawsuit, filed by the frequent candidate for the District Six County Council seat, was filed as a class action lawsuit and seeks to recover the funds paid to former county administrator Joey Preston by the lame duck 2008 Council.
That lawsuit, while similar to one brought by the County itself, goes beyond it by naming the five Council members whose majority votes insured that Preston would receive more than a million dollars in severance, and that Michael Cunningham would be hired to replace him.
The lawsuit names those Council members, one of whom remains in office, as well as Preston and Cunningham as civil and criminal conspirators; and seeks to impose individual fiscal liability on them, making them responsible for repaying the monies awarded Preston.
In the lawsuit, filed on November 16 of 2010, Freemantle’s attorney, Charles R. Griffin, alleges that secret meetings were held which purposely excluded Council members Bob Waldrep and Cindy Wilson, and which were held in order to prepare and orchestrate the events of November 18, 2008.
The suit outlines those events, and alleges a civil and criminal violation of the Freedom of Information Act requirements for open meetings.
Judge Cordell Maddox heard the case and dismissed it, ruling that Freemantle did not have legal standing to bring the suit. The Supreme Court recently interjected itself in the case by circumventing the state Appellate Court to hear the case themselves.
According to witnesses who attended the arguments, Chief Justice Jean Toal had some strong things to say. She stated that she had read the minutes of that November 18, 2008 meeting when Preston received his severance package, and Michael Cunningham was immediately hired to replace him. She described the events of that meeting as “appalling” and added that it was clear that there was a contrivance among certain members of the Council.
She referred to contracts which were prepared and presented with no recorded vote by Council to approve those preparations. Witnesses said she referred to secret meetings, a claim made by Freemantle in his lawsuit.
A formal ruling is likely several weeks away, but a reversal of Judge Maddox, who is also involved in several other lawsuits by and against the County, would have significant repercussions. For example, Michael Cunningham is currently appealing a court’s ruling that his contract as administrator, awarded immediately after approval of the Preston severance package, was invalid.
Since that contract is one of the contracts whose presence at the November 18, 2008 meeting is questioned by Chief Justice Toal and other justices, Cunningham’s appeal might very well be weakened. Another possible ramification of a reversal of Maddox’s ruling is the fact that the five members of that lame duck Council who approved the Preston buyout might once again be in jeopardy of personal fiscal responsibility for repaying those public funds used to buy Preston out.
Those members, several of whom were present at the arguments Tuesday, are Ron Wilson, who presented the severance package; Gracie Floyd, who presented the Cunningham contract; Bill McAbee, Larry Greer, who presented a list of county accounts which could contribute funds to finance the buyout; and Michael Thompson, chairman of the Council at the time.
The events of that night, among other matters, are currently being investigated by a state grand jury.