Lawmakers’ Misdeeds Often Escape Scrutiny

February 24, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveWhen it comes to investigating ethical violations involving public officials, state lawmakers often seem to get a free pass.

In a ruling earlier this month reprimanding former Lee County Chief Magistrate Alston Woodham for alleged ticket fixing, the S.C. Supreme Court said a legislator had contacted the judge about five times annually for “help on tickets on behalf of constituents.”

The Feb. 8 ruling didn’t name the state lawmaker, and a court official declined The Nerve’s request to release its investigative file, citing court rules.

But when contacted last week by The Nerve, Rep. Grady Brown, D-Lee, confirmed he was the lawmaker cited in the part of the ruling that dealt with the State Transport Police issuing truck weight violation tickets to waste haulers using the Lee County landfill.

Brown, however, denied he did anything wrong in the 2004 and 2005 incidents.

“The whole big mess revolved around a landfill, and where those officers were writing tickets on landfill property,” Brown said. “I didn’t tell anybody what to do.”

Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, chairman of the six-member S.C. House Ethics Committee, told The Nervelast week that state law prohibited him from saying whether a complaint had been filed against Brown, or whether an investigation was conducted.

He said the law allows him to comment only if a House member received a public sanction from the committee.

“There’s no ruling against Rep. Brown in anything,” he said.

The law allows private sanctions, though Smith said he isn’t allowed under the law to discuss those cases.

A committee member since the early 1990s and chairman for about seven years, Smith couldn’t recall the last time any House member faced any public sanction or provide a general percentage breakdown of private and public sanctions.

Under state law, sanctions can range from a private reprimand to expulsion for serious criminal offenses.

Brown told The Nerve he contacted either the State Transport Police, a division of the S.C. Department of Public Safety, or DPS to relay complaints from the landfill owner that officers were writing weight violation tickets to truckers at the landfill entrance, which he was informed was on private property.

“I told them there’s plenty of places in Lee County where you can write tickets,”

Brown recalled about his earlier conversation, adding he also expressed safety concerns about truckers being pulled over in the median as they entered Bishopville.

Brown cited a 2008 newspaper article quoting House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, as saying that Brown acted in the interest of his district and did nothing wrong.

“I’m looking after my constituents,” Brown told The Nerve.

A DPS internal affairs report obtained by The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act showed that Brown was heavily involved in the landfill situation. According to the 52-page report, which included interviews with various officers over 2005 and 2006:

  • State Transport Police Maj. William Tommy Moore, who retired in 2006, acknowledged that there was a “standing agreement” between him and Brown not to weigh trucks at the landfill entrance. Moore said he informed then-STP commander Col. Anna Amos about the agreement, though she denied any knowledge of an agreement when interviewed by internal affairs investigators.
  • Moore had at least three conversations with Brown in 2004 and 2005. In one of those conversations, Brown pointed out that the landfill made up 30 to 40 percent of the county’s property tax base.
  • An officer said Moore discussed the landfill situation with him in September 2005, explaining his officers would “need to come up with an enforcement plan that could be presented to Representative Brown.”
  • Another officer said that at a September 2005 meeting, Amos was asked about the restriction on working the landfill area. According to the officer, she responded “by shaking her head up and down saying this has been an issue for a while in Lee County with Representative Brown.” The officer also recalled Amos saying, “We just don’t need to do anything that is going to politically hurt us right now.”

According to the internal affairs report, several STP officers told internal affairs investigators that they were ordered to bypass normal court procedures and throw out weight violation tickets written to truckers stopped at the landfill, though Maj. Moore denied issuing those orders.

The investigation found that citations were “signed off without following proper judicial process.”

The investigation also determined that contrary to Moore’s apparent belief the landfill road was entirely private, the public right-of-way extended 125 feet from the center of U.S. 15 onto the landfill entrance, and that the state Department of Transportation had marked the area off for officers to see.

Amos, who retired about a year ago from the department, was criticized by her then-boss, DPS Director James Schweitzer, for her stated lack of knowledge about the problems, including being “unaware of an agreement between Major Moore and Representative Grady Brown in regards to enforcement at the Lee County landfill,” according to a copy of a disciplinary letter provided to The Nerve under the state Freedom of Information Act.

State court records provided to The Nerve show that the ticket-fixing allegations against Magistrate Woodham were referred to the S.C. Office of Disciplinary Counsel, a branch of the Supreme Court that investigates ethical complaints against judges and lawyers, after the DPS internal affairs investigation.

Brown told The Nerve he didn’t recall any court staff contacting him about that investigation.

In an interview with The Nerve, Lee Coggiola, who heads the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, declined to confirm whether Brown was the legislator mentioned in the court ruling in the Woodham case, citing court confidentiality rules.

Even though Woodham acknowledged the ethical violations cited in the ruling,

Coggiola said court rules prohibit her from publicly releasing court investigative files in “consent agreements.”

Those agreements, which are like plea bargains and are public records if the Supreme Court issues a public sanction, are commonly done in ethics cases against judges and lawyers.

Had Woodham been formally charged with ethical violations, though, the rules would have allowed “all subsequent records and proceedings relating to the misconduct allegations” to be released, not just the final consent agreement.

Asked if her office refers alleged ethical violations against state lawmakers to the House or Senate ethics committees, Coggiola replied, “It has to involve a lawyer or judge; other than that, we don’t have jurisdiction over anybody else.”

Under court rules, a public reprimand is the stiffest sanction against a judge who has already resigned his or her seat. Woodham resigned Oct. 19, according to his resignation letter.

Among other things, Woodham admitted that he had an STP officer mark a weight violation ticket that carried a fine of $3,905 as “not guilty,” court records show.

“We have already condemned the practice of ticket-fixing by magistrates,” the Supreme Court unanimously said in its Feb. 8 ruling. “Ticket-fixing constitutes improper ex parte communication and severely undermines the public’s confidence in a fair and impartial judicial system.”

The Nerve could not reach Woodham for comment.

When contacted by The Nerve, his attorney in the disciplinary proceedings, S. Bryan Doby of Bishopville, declined comment on the ticket-fixing allegations and said his client submitted his resignation letter because he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 72.

“Judge Woodham was a wonderful judge,” Brown told The Nerve. “Everyone in Lee County loved him.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.