SC Supreme Court rules Preston severance vote tainted by conflicts of interest


By Stan Welch
A unanimous ruling by the Justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court has brought to an end efforts by former Anderson County administrator Joey Preston to retain possession of more than a million dollars he received in severance more than a decade ago.
The court ruled 5-0 last week that several of the votes cast in 2008 to award Preston a severance package just weeks before his contract was due to expire were tainted by conflicts of interest, thereby rendering the quorum needed to pass the severance invalid.
The decade long, bitter and expensive legal battle began in June of 2008, when the results of the Republican primary along with an absence of any Democratic opposition in the general election, made it clear that a major change in the Council’s makeup was certain for the coming term.
Republican incumbents Ron Wilson, Michael Thompson and Bill McAbee all lost their bid for re-election. Some of the incoming Republicans made statements that Preston’s removal as administrator was a high priority for the incoming Council members. Preston struck first. Erroneously characterizing the statements about his future as an “anticipatory breach’ of his contract, he began steps to obtain compensation.
Council responded by hiring attorney William Bright, an expert in labor law. Bright challenged Preston and his attorney’s concept of an anticipatory breach; Bright furthermore told the council that Preston’s existing contract would run out on December 31 of that year. He stressed that no action was necessary other than declining to renew that contract. He also pointed out that Preston was an ‘at will’ employee and could be released without cause at any time, under state law.
At this point, Ron Wilson, council member for District Six, and chairman of the personnel committee, unilaterally and illegally instructed Bright to draw up the severance contract. On November 18, 2008, in a series of roughshod maneuvers, Wilson, Thompson, McAbee and Gracie Floyd, of District two, rammed the severance package through, and immediately took legislative steps to ensure that the proposal could not come back up.
In its ruling last week, the Supreme Court ruled that a quorum did not exist due to the votes of the four council members mentioned, were tainted by conflicts of interest; and therefore the entire action was invalidated. The court ruled that while the retirement purchased for Preston as part of the agreement could not be attached, the other revenues and property can be recovered by the County. That includes legal fees incurred by the county, which are approximately four million dollars.
Preston, who has been implicated in a Ponzi scheme that Ron Wilson is currently serving federal time for, faces the recovery efforts of those funds by the federal receiver in the amount of an additional one point two million dollars.
Two members of the 2008 County Council remain on Council. District Seven Councilwoman Cindy Wilson, longtime critic and opponent of the Preston administration, has been largely vindicated, while District Two Councilwoman Gracie Floyd cast one of those tainted votes. She also produced an improperly prepared and unauthorized contract which was immediately, by a vote of 4-3, awarded to then assistant administrator Michael Cunningham. Cunningham, African American like Floyd, was briefly the first African American administrator in Anderson County. He was quickly removed by the incoming Council, and fought his own legal battle with the county.
So it appears that Preston, now county administrator for Bamberg County, owes somewhere in the neighborhood of six million dollars to the county and federal receiver appointed in the Wilson silver bullion scheme. The amount of his personal legal fees is unknown.