EXCLUSIVE: Richland County election mess

Issues surface with Richland election director finalists

cleblanc@thestate.comMay 4, 2013 

Three Richland County election director finalists (Top row ) Adam Ragan, Howard Jackson (Bottom row) Patricia Jefferson

THE STATE

— Questions have arisen about the three finalists for Richland County’s elections director job after The State newspaper found undisclosed issues in their work histories.

One of the contenders to replace controversial ex-director Lillian McBride, Howard Jackson, who is director of elections in Orangeburg, was investigated in 2008 for election-law violations, according to SLED records obtained by the newspaper.

No wrongdoing was found, and the 1st Circuit Solicitor’s Office closed the case.

But Jackson did not disclose the probe to the four-member screening committee for the Richland County job, and two of the members, when reached for comment, said they are concerned.

Another candidate, Sumter County’s elections director, Pat Jefferson, is currently not certified by the state to conduct elections. That, too, apparently was not disclosed during hourlong interviews conducted by the panel appointed to nominate finalists.

The third contender, Adam Ragan, who is head of elections in Gaston County, N.C., has yet to meet a certification standard in that state, which requires election directors at the county level to have three years of experience overseeing local races. There is no such requirement in South Carolina.

“At this stage, we’ve got to be sure there’s nothing in anybody’s background that would raise any questions,” said Rep. Jimmy Bales, D-Richland, and one of the members of the committee, which reviewed 17 applications.

The county election board is looking for a new director after McBride was demoted following Richland County’s debacle of an election on Nov. 6. A shortage of voting machines left voters waiting in lines for hours. Many left the polls without voting, leading to appeals and lawsuits.

Bales and Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson, who’s also on the screening committee, said Howard Jackson did not disclose the criminal investigation.

Bales said that failure should disqualify the Orangeburg candidate.

Jefferson can regain her certification, so that is not “a deal breaker,” Bales said.

Norman Jackson said he supports keeping Howard Jackson’s nomination in place with a “note” disclosing the probe.

The other screening committee members, Sue Berkowitz and Herbert Sims, could not be reached Thursday or Friday. Sims chairs the panel and also is a member of the county elections board, which will hire the director.

When told Friday by a reporter of the criminal investigation and its outcome, the chairman of the elections board, Allen Dowdy, said board members will continue to dig deeper into the background of the three finalists.

Dowdy said he would look into the investigation of Howard Jackson. Dowdy did not return a follow-up message about Jefferson and Ragan.

He would not say when the board would decide who gets the job. “We hope to do it by the end of this month,” Dowdy said.

Criminal background checks conducted for the search panel did not turn up arrests or convictions on the finalists, Bales and Norman Jackson said. But that kind of check would not show investigations that did not produce a criminal charge.

Ragan’s three-year certification process in North Carolina was not final as of Friday. The deputy director of that state’s election office, Johnnie McLean, said she could review Ragan’s status to determine if he has enough overall election experience to complete a final certification step.

“He was an excellent employee while he was here,” she said of Ragan’s four-plus years as campaign finance analyst for the North Carolina state agency where he worked before he moved to the county job. “And he’s done a good job in Gaston.”

SLED investigation

Howard Jackson was one of two people – the other was a campaign worker – that the State Law Enforcement Division investigated in connection with alleged absentee ballot irregularities in the June 2008 Orangeburg County Democratic primary, SLED files show.

Employees in Jackson’s office told SLED they advised their boss that he was violating election laws and that he directed them to follow his order nevertheless, according to the files, obtained through the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request.

No charges were filed against either person because agents could not corroborate the allegations.

Jackson dismissed the case as nothing more than accusations by disgruntled employees.

He said he did not specifically mention the investigation to the search panel because, “It was a non-story ... a non-issue.”

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, requested the SLED investigation because she was a candidate in the primary election. She said Thursday that her recollection is that the allegations came down to a “power struggle” within the election office.

Howard Jackson said there have been no other investigations since he fired the three employees. “Ever since that time, we’ve had no incidence of any absentee or any voting irregularities, or complaints,” he said.

The deputy solicitor who oversaw the 2008 investigation, Tommy Scott, agreed that no other election-law irregularities have come to his office.

When asked, Howard Jackson said that to his knowledge he is not related to either Norman Jackson or to Sen. Darrell Jackson, the chairman of the Richland County delegation that selects county election board members.

Lapsed certification

Jefferson did not respond Friday to messages left at her work and home.

The longtime elections director in Sumter did not receive certification in 2012 and did not get continuing education credits for the years 2000, 2002 and 2004, according to records at the State Election Commission. The credits are part of the certification process.

Jefferson initially was certified in 1999, state elections spokesman Chris Whitmire said in an email Friday. He checked certification records on Jefferson and Jackson at the newspaper’s request.

“By not attending a certification class in 2012, her certification is not current,” Whitmire wrote. “By attending a 2013 certification class, she would become current.” Jefferson has not attended a class this year, the spokesman wrote.

That means she was uncertified to run an election while she was applying for the Richland County job, which is likely to carry a salary between $75,000 and $85,000.

Howard Jackson’s certification is in good standing, Whitmire wrote.

State law requires annual continuing education credits and allows election officials 18 months to achieve certification.

Ragan, the candidate from North Carolina, said last week that he has no criminal history.

“I have a couple of speeding tickets,” Ragan said, describing his rap sheet as “one page, and it’ll say he’s as boring as they come.”

North Carolina’s public disclosure laws, unlike South Carolina’s, limit access to criminal histories to law enforcement officials.

Staff writer Dawn Hinshaw contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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