Property purchase details explained in ethics email

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By Stan Welch

A recent article in The Journal dealt with rumors and concerns that Town Councilman Rockey Burgess might have used inside information about the possible location of a WalMart superstore to gain financial advantage by purchasing several acres of land near the proposed site.

Burgess refuted those allegations, and cited a brief portion of an e-mail exchange between him and the S.C. Ethics Commission chief counsel, concerning the possibility of improper conduct. Burgess declined to provide any additional information from the e-mail because it contained several items of information which were first revealed in executive sessions of the Town Council.

Such information is protected from public scrutiny, and Burgess regretfully, but properly, refused to share that information. His decision was buttressed by the advice of the Town Attorney, as well. A subsequent Freedom of Information request by The Journal directly to the chief counsel, Ms. Cathy Hazelwood was honored, and the entire correspondence was provided.

That more complete correspondence confirms that Burgess fully disclosed both his official status as well as his involvement in the purchase of the land near the potential WalMart site.

Burgess’s e-mail began, “I am currently a councilmember representing Ward 2 in the Town of Williamston. I am also a business owner who buys and sells properties. For some time, I have been looking to buy property in the Greenville Drive area of our town to develop. Around mid year 2013, council was notified, in executive session, that a deal was in the works to bring in a Wal-Mart store to our area and that deal would be contingent upon the county economic development folks being able to broker an agreeable incentive package as well as site surveys, etc. The rumors were widely known and even reported in the local paper:

http://thejournalonline.com/2013/07/10/walmart-coming/”

He went on to detail the efforts by him and his partner Tommy Ellison to acquire the 4.45 acre tract well before the WalMart deal took shape. In fact, Burgess refers to a continuing uncertainty about the future of the project, stating, “At this time, there are no absolutes to Wal-Mart coming to our town as no final deal has been accepted or voted upon by the county. The “Wal-Mart site” has not changed hands and still belongs to the original owners. No building permits have been pulled. The purchase of the property in question may or may not be developed and at this time I am not privy as a councilmember to any concrete information nor any knowledge that is not already publicly rumored.”

Ms. Cathy Hazelwood, Chief Counsel for the Ethics Commission, offered her opinion that there was no conflict of interest or impropriety involved in Burgess’s actions.