To SC Supreme Court
By Stan Welch
More than three months after a contentious decision to authorize county attorneys to pursue the appeal of the decisions rendered in the County’s case versus Joey Preston, the legal documents to move that appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court were filed last week.
The appeal follows what many considered shocking and overreaching rulings by Judge Roger Couch in May of 2013. During that ruling Couch, who had been presented with the County’s case that several members of the Council which approved Preston’s $1.2 million severance package had received or were expecting financial benefit as a result of their votes, ruled that Councilman Waldrep and Councilwoman Wilson, the only two dissenting votes, instead had a conflict, due to other litigation with the county and with Preston.
Almost exactly five years to the day from the November 18, 2008 meeting which saw Preston rewarded with the severance package, just six weeks before his contract would have expired without any compensation involved, the Anderson County Council split along 4-3 lines to pursue the next, though not necessarily the final, step in the state appeals process.
Then Council Chairman Francis Crowder cast the tie breaking vote at the November 19, 2013 meeting; while Councilwoman Gracie Floyd argued vehemently against the decision, even trying to strike the proposed vote from the agenda. Floyd was instrumental in the procedures and machinations involved in paying Preston, as well as in immediately hiring deputy administrator Michael Cunningham, who was subsequently fired by the incoming Council.
In the event of an unsatisfactory hearing by the S.C. Appellate Court, the Council may again have to face a decision about whether to go to the State Supreme Court or not. Members of the Council and the general public who continue to support the case against Preston often cite in camera remarks by Chief Supreme Court Justice Jean Toal, as well as other Justices, made during a hearing on a separate but related case, prior to Couch’s rulings. Toal stated clearly that the Freedom of Information act was violated by the Council in the 2008 meeting, and she also described the severance package as an “obvious golden parachute” and an attempt to “hurry up and pay off their buddy before the next Council terminated him.”
Proponents of the continued appeal continue to express optimism that the Supreme Court may intervene and accelerate the hearing of the case by taking it on instead of the appellate court. The very first suit brought in the Preston inspired cycle of litigation that has cost the County millions of dollars was handled in such a way, with the Justices choosing to rule immediately because of the crucial issue involved.
In that case, three citizens were enlisted to file a suit claiming that only the County Administrator had the authority to hire investigators into the county operations. In other words, only Preston had the right to hire those charged with investigating him; a premise which both the preliminary hearing judge and later Chief Justice Toal called “patently absurd.”