Richland County Seeks to Silence Whistleblowers

November 17, 2015

Investigative Reports

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Whistle

Is transparency an “unethical behavior”?

***Thursday, Nov. 19 UPDATE: At it’s Tuesday regular meeting, County Council Chairman Torrey Rush did not refer the motion to a committee for discussion as is the normal practice but instead sent the motion to the legal department to await a report from them before forwarding it to the rules committee.

“My reason for sending the motion there first, is to make sure it wasn’t outside of our scope as council members,” Rush said in an emailed response to The Nerve. “Our legal staff can provide the committee an initial perspective on the motion.”

No timetable was set on when that determination might be made.***

An all-out, behind-the-scenes push by Richland County Council member Kelvin Washington to fund a $1 million scheme designed to profit off the recent flooding has another member of council, Norman Jackson, so upset he is calling for the firing of anyone found to have participated – not in its creation, as one might expect, but in its leaking to the media beforehand.

Buried at the bottom of the agenda for tonight’s regular meeting of the Richland County Council, Jackson has introduced a motion that would fire immediately any staff member found to have aided in the release of any FOIA requests – such as the ones detailing Washington and Jackson’s extended Nashville stay, first reported by The Nerve last week here, or the closed-door, no-bid contract reported on in detail here –or “caught misrepresenting the agency or the Administrator.”

Jackson believes releasing public information to the public outside “proper channels” — channels which are subject to council influence and which in some cases have yet to provide FOIA material that is overdue – has become “common practice” and “damages the integrity of this body.”

To recap, it is not the scheme to defraud taxpayers of $1 million in the name of “coordinating” flood relief or the fact of three different council members, Jackson included, flying commercially and staying overnight on what was to be a one-day, chartered-flight excursion that Jackson is fired-up about.

It’s that word got out.

Here are Jackson’s words, straight from the agenda, unedited and in their entirety:

“In an attempt to stop this unethical behavior of certain council members leaking confidential information to the media and other sources I move that Richland County Council develop a policy to address these unethical behaviors. Executive session items, confidential items and FOIA requests must be handled by the proper channels. As for staff, any staff member caught misrepresenting the agency or the Administrator shall be fired immediately. As for council members misbehavior even though we have the Ethics Commission, Council should develop some rules. This is becoming a common practice and it damages the integrity of this body. [JACKSON]”

Two separate Richland County personnel who feared for their jobs if their names were used told The Nerve on Monday they believe this effort to be a direct threat toward anyone who may be inclined to blow the whistle on practices they believe to be unethical. For government watchdog John Crangle of Common Cause, an attorney with years of defense expertise, the county has precious little ground to stand on, if any at all.

“Civil servants are entitled to due process and can only be fired if they’ve violated a legal rule and only if the authority firing you has the power to fire you,” Crangle said. “Even then, you’re entitled to a fair hearing. I don’t believe elected officials have the right to fire civil servants or have the authority to create such a rule, apply that rule to civil servants and then enforce it.”

“If a council member fired a civil servant immediately, they’d be slapped with a lawsuit within the next 30 days and I’d take the client because I think its winnable. I think Norman is trying to do something over which the council will get itself into a lot of trouble.”

Crangle said beyond the reality of legal issues associated with the overreach of a council’s authority, the perception of council members taking drastic efforts to control leaks presents its own problem.

“What information is Norman so worried about?” Crangle said. “What does he regard as misrepresentation? What information was false? It might be embarrassing, the details that have come out, but that’s it. If the information has been true, which it has been, then nothing has been misrepresented. You get more leaks in government when you have misbehavior.

“When you’re doing the right thing, you’re not worried about a government employee leaking that you’re doing the right thing. But if you’re running a back-door game that isn’t operating in the public interest or is potentially unethical, you’re very worried about leaks. It’s always those who are most worried about leaks who are doing the most things wrong.”

Federal and state whistleblower laws exist to protect those willing to report abuse. The S.C. Whistleblower Act of 2004 (Section 8-27-10 and 8-27-50) protects government employees “when reporting allegations of misconduct and wrongdoing by a public official or employee.”

Reach Ron at 803-254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.