Ruling on Preston case expected after Thanksgiving

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By Stan Welch

At the end of nearly two hours of testimony by Joey Preston Monday, his team of attorneys rested their case, bringing the three year trial to a close. All that’s left is the submission of written final arguments to Judge Roger Couch, who promised a ruling shortly after Thanksgiving.

The case began in 2009 when the new County Council filed suit to rescind the severance agreement which the 2008 lame duck County Council awarded Preston. During his testimony, Preston reiterated his claims that he is unable to repay the money if he were to lose.

He also informed the court that, as a result of his involvement in the Ponzi scheme run by former County Councilman Ron Wilson, he is negotiating an agreement with a federal receiver to repay several hundred thousand dollars which he reaped from that scheme.

Despite his admission that he reaped at least $400,000 in profit from his original investments of $200,000 into the scheme, Preston continues to claim that he was unaware of the fact that the silver supposedly purchased on behalf of investors in fact never existed.

Preston, in a black suit and a gold tie, looking tan and fit, took the stand at 11:20 a.m. His attorney, Lane Davis, chose to take Preston through a series of allegations made by the County in its case earlier in the trial.

Davis quickly led Preston through his explanation that he did not backdate documents authorizing then economic development director Heather Jones’ use of a county vehicle, nor the postdated approval for reimbursement of costs she incurred in her continuing education, nor the approval for travel to Germany.

Preston said that the vehicle and education reimbursements were part of Jones’ negotiated benefits package before she was hired in 2006. He said the creation of documents authorizing those benefits in the days just before he left office was intended to “memorialize” arrangements that had been made years earlier. He said the travel to Germany was always contingent on funds being available in the budget, but added that the trip never occurred.

He also defended his promise to then Council Chairman Michael Thompson that he would hire him at the end of his term. Thompson came to Preston in early spring of 2008, said Preston, seeking employment. Preston said he found Thompson to be highly qualified for the position he sought in the purchasing department.

Preston said that Thompson, who had an MBA degree and several years of experience with Bosch, was more qualified than 95-98% of the current County employees. On cross examination, Troy Tessier, attorney for the County, asked Preston what percentage of county employees had just voted to give him over a million dollars in severance pay. Preston replied, “Just one.”

Preston also said that Thompson’s decision, at Preston’s urging, and at taxpayers’ expense, to take courses to become a licensed appraiser was one he had no authority over. “County Council members can take any training they like. I was told by county attorney Tom Martin that I had to sign off on those expenses.”

The total cost of the courses and associated expenses incurred by Thompson came to more than $7000. His efforts to obtain a job in the county assessor’s office came to naught, when Michael Cunningham, who replaced Preston, refused to hire Thompson.

Preston also claimed that he had no authority to restrict the travels, at taxpayers’ expense, of Councilman Bill McAbee and his economic development protégé Amy Plummer. During the course of two years, McAbee and Plummer ran up approximately $30,000 in travel and related expenses, in their pursuit of the rail industry.

The two also shared a $146,000 commission for the sale of the Cheddar site where the ethanol facility now stands. Preston said that McAbee’s role in that transaction was proper because he recused himself from several related votes on the issue, such as the eventual closure of Lewis Drive.

Under Davis’s guidance and questioning, he claimed that his decision to “amend” the consulting contract of Alison Schaum from a modest month to month contract to a three year contract with a lucrative buyout provision was as a result of the success of her efforts on behalf of the county to establish a sustainable agriculture program, and not as a quid pro quo to her father, Councilman Ron Wilson.

Wilson, mentioned above in reference to the Ponzi scheme, was the chairman of the personnel committee which handled Preston’s severance agreement. At a November 18, 2008 meeting, Wilson suddenly produced a buyout contract which made Preston a millionaire by meeting’s end.

The County has been in legal turmoil ever since.

A key component of Preston’s severance package included the purchase of SC retirement credits sufficient to allow him to retire immediately. The cost of those credits, which he will lose if the severance package is rescinded, amounted to well over $300,000.

Under the current circumstances, Preston receives approximately $7700 a month for “walking to the mailbox” as attorney Tessier put it.

Preston explained that the $400,000 he withdrew from his Atlantic Bullion & Coin account was spent to pay legal fees and make improvements to his home and property, in an effort to establish a location where social events such as weddings and other activities could be staged.

He said that the decision to do so was predicated on the fact that he was unable to find work as a result of the litigation with Anderson County. “I sent out 22 or 23 resumes’ and couldn’t get a job. I had always gotten the job I wanted before. I decided I better try and get a business up and running.”

Davis also led Preston through a review of the status f his legal expenses. According to his testimony, Preston still hasn’t completely paid off the $150,000 retainer required by the Nelson Mullins Law Firm in 2009. In addition, there is a $350,000 contingency tobe paid if he prevails in his case.

He also currently owes the Upstate Law Group, or Candy Kern-Fuller, approximately $196,000 in legal fees.