Ethics commission sees no problem with property purchase

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By Town Councilman

By Stan Welch

Williamston Town Councilman Rockey Burgess recently spoke with The Journal in order to explain and clarify his actions in the purchase of a piece of property in close proximity to a rumored major retail development coming to that end of town.

In recent weeks, The Journal has received inquiries and complaints about the purchase by Burgess and a business partner, Tommy Ellison, of a piece of property in close proximity to four tracts of land recently annexed by the town which are rumored to be slated for development as a major large box retail location. The rumors, not totally unfounded, have pointed towards a Walmart as the anchor store, although no official confirmation of that fact has been forthcoming.

That lack of official acknowledgment is a key factor in the questions being asked about Burgess’s involvement in the purchase of a 4.45 acre property just across and down Highway 20 from the larger tracts just off Roberts Blvd. and Hwy. 20. Many of the comments and inquiries The Journal has received have been based on Burgess’s status as a Ward Two Town Councilman and the access to “inside” information as a result.

For months, the rumors of a major retail development have circulated. During that time, county officials involved in economic development efforts have met with Town Council members and Mayor Durham, however those discussions took place in executive session, away from public scrutiny, as is allowed by state law.

Still, Burgess’s and Ellison’s interest in, and eventual purchase of the property, has raised concerns that perhaps his official status and access to such secret information might have been used to the two men’s advantage.

Burgess denies such speculation, adding that he and his partner had expressed interest in the property long before the county became involved. “We had looked at that property more than a year earlier,” said Burgess. “The land is held by a family trust and getting eight people to agree to even sell, much less agree on a price, just proved too difficult.”

“Later, I heard that another realtor had become involved and I called them. He had managed to get such cooperation from the family, but Tommy and I thought the price was too high. So we backed off again. After awhile longer, we made an offer and the folks accepted it, as long as we closed by the end of January of this year. I think it was a tax matter for them. So we closed on January 31.”

The selling price was $125,000, and Burgess makes no bones that he sees the potential for a profit. But he adds that several extenuating circumstances exist.

“I contacted the S.C. Ethics Commission and explained the situation completely. I even cited an article in The Journal that speculated that a Walmart might be coming. I explained my official position and the circumstances surrounding the property. I told them everything they needed to know and their Chief Counsel responded with an e-mail saying that the transaction was a clear arm’s length transaction and that she saw no issue about it.”

The Journal asked to see the e-mail, and Burgess complied, up to a point. According to him, the text of his email contained information obtained in executive sessions with the County and he declined to divulge it, until he consulted with the town attorney. What Burgess did provide included a couple lines from his e-mail identifying himself, as well as the brief response from Chief Counsel Cathy Hazelwood, which stated that the transaction appeared to be righteous and ethical.

In addition, Burgess pointed out that some logistical snarls may be delaying the final disposition on the major project in question. “This deal is far from done, in my opinion. So my investment in the property was anything but a sure thing. But I didn’t hide anything from anyone. I gave the entire Council a copy of the e-mail between me and the Ethics Commission’s lawyer, and I’m satisfied that I behaved properly.”