Ethics Commission Finds Probable Cause against Lawmaker, Then Drops Case

August 19, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Greg DuckworthThe State Ethics Commission recently found probable cause that freshman Rep. Greg Duckworth violated state ethics law by not properly recusing himself from a North Myrtle Beach project while he was a city councilman.

But the commission issued no sanctions against the Horry County Republican after allowing him to file required recusal forms with the city – more than two years to nearly four years after the fact, according to city records obtained this week by The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the commission’s July 13 order.

“We basically thought we could highlight something we felt wasn’t above board, but the Ethics Commission has no interest,” said Charles Collins of Horry County, who, along with his wife Bren Gibson, filed an ethics complaint in November against Duckworth, when contacted Tuesday byThe Nerve. “The whitewashing of the whole thing is a disgrace.”

The Senate earlier this year debated, though it didn’t approve, a proposal giving a reconfigured State Ethics Commission the power to investigate state lawmakers in connection with their legislative office. Under current state law, legislators police themselves for ethics violations through their respective chambers’ ethics committees; the commission’s order last month noted the complaint against Duckworth “solely related to his time on North Myrtle Beach City Council.”

Contacted this week by The Nerve, Duckworth said while he recused himself from votes posing conflicts of interest while he was on City Council, he didn’t know he had to file written recusal forms with the city, as required by state ethics law.

“I had done everything physically to recuse myself,” said Duckworth, who served on City Council from 2001-2013 before his election to the House. “It’s just that the written part – honestly, I just didn’t know. Had I known that, I would have done that.”

On March 19 this year, Duckworth filed nine written recusal forms with City Clerk Merideth Smith relating to matters before City Council from May 2, 2011, through Dec. 17, 2012, according to copies of the forms provided this week by Smith to The Nerve under the FOIA.

The day before the recusal forms were filed, the Ethics Commission met and “(r)ather than making a probable cause determination,” it “requested information on whether the Respondent (Duckworth) had taken action to remedy or correct the alleged violations by providing the North Myrtle Beach City Clerk written recusal statements as required by the Ethics Act.”

In its July order, the Ethics Commission said it found probable cause for eight counts of Ethics Act violations relating to Duckworth’s failure to file written recusal forms. State law (Section 8-13-700 (B) of the S.C. Code of Laws) requires that when public officials have to “take an action or make a decision which affects an economic interest of himself, a family member, an individual with whom he is associated, or a business with which he is associated,” they must file a written statement, to be printed in the official minutes of the governing public body, “describing the matter requiring action or decisions and the nature of his potential conflict of interest with respect to the action or decision.”

The Ethics Commission ruled that Duckworth “complied with the spirit of the Ethics Act as it relates to recusal, but inadvertently failed to fully comply with the letter of the law.”

“Given the totality of the circumstances, including a review of the recusal statements that demonstrate Respondent (Duckworth) has now corrected the violation and is in compliance with the Ethics Act, the Commission finds it appropriate to exercise its power to waive further proceedings on this matter,” the order said.

In a written response Tuesday to The Nerve, Herb Hayden, the commission’s executive director, said although Duckworth’s case was “not a common ruling,” it is “an option for the Commission when there is corrective action taken.”

Hayden said state law (Section 8-13-320 (10)(i) of the S.C. Code of Laws) allows the commission to “waive further proceedings” if the official who received the ethics complaint “takes action to remedy or correct the alleged violation,” noting that when Duckworth filed his recusal forms, he “remedied the alleged violation.”

But Myrtle Beach lawyer Reese Boyd, who represented Collins and Gibson, questioned the commission’s decision when contacted this week by The Nerve.

“How much value is there in a recusal form that is filed four years after the fact?” Boyd said. “Does the form meet the requirements of the statute? Probably. But information delivered stale is not really useful.”

Collins and Gibson filed their ethics complaint against Duckworth on Nov. 20  – the same month The Nerve revealed that the newly elected Duckworth earlier had filed lawsuits against the couple, contending they defamed him during his 2012 failed attempt for a House seat. The Nerve in March reported that Circuit Judge Roger Young tossed the suits.

Then-Rep. Tracy Edge defeated Duckworth in the June 2012 Republican primary but lost to him in the June 2014 GOP primary. Duckworth faced no formal opposition in the November general election.

The December 2012 suits alleged the couple defamed Duckworth by claiming in June 2012 letters in the online edition of the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News that Duckworth used his council position to make money for his landscape architectural and land planning firm in connection with a sports complex approved by council.

In a summary judgment order last March in favor of the couple, Judge Young ruled that “one could make a reasonable argument that most of the statements contained in the letters were demonstrably true, and those that weren’t fall within the category of political speech given special protection by the United State Constitution.”

The Ethics Commission’s ruling noted Duckworth informed the commission his firm was “working on a North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex at the time,” and that “in each instance in which the Sports Complex was brought before the council, he announced that he was recusing himself because of his “involvement with the project and to avoid a conflict of interest.’”

Most of the recusal forms filed this year by Duckworth list the sports complex as a topic discussed during council meetings or executive sessions in 2011 and 2012. But he didn’t identify his company by name (Environmental Concepts LLC) or report the amount his firm received from the project, checking only a printed recusal reason that reads, “Professionally employed by or under contract with principal.”

Duckworth on Tuesday told The Nerve that Mozingo & Wallace Architects LLC in Myrtle Beach hired his company to work on the sports complex. He declined to reveal the taxpayer-funded amount his firm was paid.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.