By Stan Welch
Attorneys for Joey Preston and for Anderson County spent seven hours examining and cross examining and re-examining just two witnesses Monday, as the County’s lawsuit to recoup the $1.2 million awarded to former county administrator Joey Preston by the lame duck 2008 County Council ground ahead.
Judge Roger Couch of Spartanburg is presiding over the trial. One issue has been settled. Preston filed a countersuit several months ago, seeking to have the Insurance Reserve Fund pay what he claimed were approximately $133,000 in legal fees he had accumulated. Attorneys for the IRF agreed to settle that lawsuit for $50,000 recently.
The settlement reportedly precludes Preston from any further legal action against the County in that matter. Preston has recently filed documents with the court claiming that he is in dire financial straits, despite recently signing a consulting contract with Bamberg County and his continued receipt of more than $7500 a month in SC retirement benefits.
A county official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Journal that the County neither initiated, requested, nor approved the settlement. “The County wasn’t an active player in that lawsuit and had no meaningful input,” said the County staffer. “The IRF makes decisions based almost totally on cost in circumstances like that.”
In court Monday, former S.C. Senator and three term County Councilman Bob Waldrep was the first witness for the County. His testimony was a bit spotty, as was his memory; but on several occasions, he and Preston’s attorney, Lane Davis, sparred rather briskly.
Davis’s main thrust seemed to be a series of informal and unofficial meetings that Waldrep, and Cindy Wilson, held at Waldrep’s law office, which were also attended by newly elected Council members Tom Allen, Tommy Dunn and Eddie Moore. According to Waldrep’s testimony, any number of issues were discussed at those meetings, which he claimed were intended to help the newly elected members “hit the ground running” once they were sworn in to the Council in January 2009.
The three new members named above were essentially elected in the June primary, since they either faced no opposition, or write-in or petition candidates in the general election. All three ran, to one degree or another, as reform candidates, and all were considered to have plans to at least rein Joey Preston in, if not get rid of him altogether.
Davis pushed hard to establish that other employees also suspected of financial misdeeds by the incoming Council had been run off, and therefore, Preston’s presumption that his job was at stake was in fact accurate.
Waldrep, while conceding the new Council members were eager to place Preston and finance director Gina Humphreys on paid leave during an audit, also insisted that they had no authority to act, and presumed none until they were sworn in in after the New Year.
The second witness was attorney Tom Bright, whom the County retained to handle the Preston situation.
Bright testified that his report to the Council, or rather, the three man personnel committee, ( Greer, Ron Wilson, and McAbee) was essentially that he thought Preston had little or no case in his claim that his contract had been anticipatorily breached.
“I would not have paid him if it were me,” said Bright. “I do not think his original contract was enforceable, but I placed all the options and scenarios before the Council and they made their decision.”
The County’s attorneys also succeeded in showing approximately 35 minutes of video of the November 18, 2008 meeting. The judge acknowledged having seen it twice and conceded that he would probably see it once or twice more before he makes any decisions.
Tuesday morning’s session began with former deputy administrator Michael Cunningham’s testimony. Troy Tessier, representing the County, led Cunningham through a series of questions and inquiries.
Cunningham, who was hired to replace Preston within minutes after the approval of Preston’s severance package at the November 18, 2008 Council meeting, offered the first sworn confirmation of long rumored meetings outside the county to orchestrate the events of that November meeting.
Cunningham, currently employed by AnMed Health, said that on October 22, 2008, he met with three members of County Council, at a Greenwood, SC restaurant to discuss the possible buyout of Preston and Cunningham’s subsequent hiring.
The three members were personnel committee members Ron Wilson, Larry Greer, and Council member Gracie Floyd, who would subsequently present the employment contract for Cunningham at that November meeting. Floyd had no standing on the personnel committee.
Cunningham also testified that he later met with Greer and Wilson, again in Greenwood, where they discussed salary and other aspects of Cunningham’s employment. |Cunningham said he sought a salary of $125,000 a year.
Cunningham also testified that he was aware on the seventeenth of November, 2008 that a vote was likely on a severance package for Preston at the following night’s Council meeting. Previous testimony showed that the contract to be voted on was received at the county courthouse just sixty six minutes before that meeting was convened.
Tessier also raised the issue of then Council Chairman Michael Thompson’s efforts to be hired by the County. According to previous reports in The Journal, Thompson sought, apparently with some encouragement, to be employed by the Anderson County Assessor’s Office.
Cunningham testified that Preston approached him in mid-November about Thompson’s possible employment. Preston informed Cunningham of Thompson’s financial straits and his wife’s health issues. Cunningham said he expressed his concerns that such a move in the political atmosphere of Anderson County at that time would be detrimental to both the County and to Thompson.
Thompson also approached Cunningham after the November 18 meeting, according to Cunningham’s testimony. Cunningham again expressed his concerns and subsequently declined to hire Thompson.
During cross examination by Preston’s attorney Lane Davis, Cunningham elicited Cunningham’s testimony that, aside from the political ramifications of Thompson’s employment by the County, he would have made an excellent candidate. Davis included in the resume’ of Thompson his real estate experience, which was garnered largely while Thompson was on the County Council.
In earlier reports in The Journal, Anderson County assessor Mike Freeman stated that Thompson was supposed to be employed in his (Freeman’s) department and had been sent for assessor’s training at county expense. The cost of that training and associated expenses was approximately $7000.
Freeman expressed his personal view that Thompson was slated to eventually replace Freeman as head of that department.
Davis also questioned Cunningham about an investigation, essentially financial in nature, conducted by CPA Bob Daniel. Davis quickly homed in on rumors of an improper relationship between a county consultant and a county employee. He quickly abandoned that line of inquiry when Cunningham crossed him up by stating that those allegations centered around then S.C. Representative John Scott, and not Daniel.
Scott, long a crony of Preston, enjoyed and benefited from a contract of several years with Anderson County which eventually paid Scott more than a $1 million over the course of Preston’s tenure, and for three years beyond it, is now a state Senator.
Following Cunningham in the parade of witnesses was former District Four Councilman Bill McAbee. Attorney Tally Parham conducted the examination of McAbee, She quickly established the relationship between Preston and McAbee, beginning with their membership in the same Sons of Confederate Veterans camp.
The highlights of McAbee’s testimony included his admission that his well known repeated calls for the question and his calls for reconsideration of each step involved in the buyout of Preston were in fact Parliamentary tactics designed to limit debate of the severance agreement and associated issues.
McAbee also testified that he supported the Preston buyout, even at a level above the $1.14 million eventually settled upon, because of the “toxic political
atmosphere” in Anderson County.
Ms. Parham also elicited the information that McAbee held a SC realtor’s license for approximately one year and received one commission during that “career”.
That commission, however, was for $73,000 for the sale of land adjacent to the Belton tank farm to Lincoln Energy. McAbee’s economic development protégé’, Amy Plummer, received a like amount for that transaction, which eventually led to the closing of Lewis Drive in the Cheddar community.
Parham also established that Plummer profited from the County’s purchase of three tracts of land near the county airport. The total commissions and fees paid to Plummer, who was McAbee’s appointee to the county’s economic development advisory board, came to approximately $40,000.
Both legal teams skirted around the potentially embarrassing allegations that McAbee and Plummer may have had more than a business relationship. While the County’s attorneys emphasized that the two frequently traveled together, and often at county expense, Preston’s attorney, Candy Kern Fuller, asked if McAbee had ever had his expenses questioned while traveling with a male associate.
McAbee’s response reflected that the only time he had traveled with a male, Plummer was also present.
Figures provided by auditor Bob Daniel reflected more than $30,000 in expenses incurred by McAbee and Plummer over a relatively short period, including a burst of travel and spending during McAbee’s lame duck period after losing the Republican primary in June of 2008.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day came after the lunch break, when former District Six Councilman Ron Wilson took the stand.
Wilson, also a fellow SCV compatriot of Preston and McAbee, recently pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud in reference to a Ponzi scheme he ran for more than a decade. Attorney Troy Tessier attempted to question Wilson, who repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self- incrimination.
Wilson invoked that protection against questions as innocent as whether he was on the Anderson County Council in 2008, and also on questions as telling as whether Preston invested $200,000 in Wilson’s scheme and subsequently withdrew $600,000 from his Atlantic Bullion & Coin account. He invoked his Constitutional rights ten times before being dismissed as a witness.
His sentencing on the federal charges is scheduled for November 13.