RICHLAND COUNTY, S.C. — Richland County taxpayers are footing the bill for nearly $153,000 in legal fees to investigate what went so wrong in the Nov. 6 election and to fend off protests that threatened to unravel the results.
The expenses, detailed in a 46-page packet obtained by The State newspaper under South Carolina’s open-records law, include:
• $72,423.10 for lawyer Steve Hamm, hired at the request of the Richland County Board of Elections & Voter Registration, to uncover the web of mistakes that resulted in waits of up to seven hours for voters and a cache of misplaced ballots.
• $9,461.25 for a lawyer to represent the interests of elections director Lillian McBride, viewed as incompetent by her critics and as a scapegoat by her defenders. She since has been demoted to a deputy director.
Hamm’s months-long investigation has produced two preliminary reports so far into what caused one of the most mismanaged elections in state history, citing a lack of voting machines to meet state law. Still, there have been few concrete answers as to who is responsible for the mistakes and exactly how they happened.
Reached last week, Hamm said his final report will suggest some changes in office procedures and make other recommendations on how to improve county elections. But the release of that report will wait until a new elections director is hired, Hamm and elections board chairman Allen Dowdy said. While three director finalists have been selected, there is no timetable for the decision, Dowdy said.
In all, lawyers Hamm, Helen McFadden, John Moylan and John Nichols charged legal fees of $152,754.55 for work they did on behalf of the county in the four months after the election.
Their pay ranged from $225 an hour to $395 an hour.
The county has received all the legal bills it expects related to the fall election, said county attorney Larry Smith, who hired each of the lawyers except Moylan, who worked on behalf of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority.
Richland County Council will take up a budget amendment this week to pay for the legal work.
‘Enough blame to go around’
John Nichols, hired to look out for McBride’s interests, said he negotiated with the elections board for McBride’s new position as deputy director of voter registration. He also appeared with her at meetings on the election debacle.
Nichols described his job as “simply to, I think, make sure that the mood of the time did not railroad her.”
“There are a lot of things that went wrong Nov. 6, and she acknowledged some of those failings,” he said. But Hamm’s investigation revealed mistakes made by McBride’s staff and legislators, too, who weren’t paying attention to the overgrown precincts in some of their districts, Nichols said.
“There’s enough blame to go around.”
In February, the county informed Hamm it would pay no more for his investigation into what went wrong Nov. 6.
“The faucet has been turned off on the investigation,” Richland County Council chairman Kelvin Washington said last week.
“We felt the only thing we should be paying is for the legal help,” he added. “He’s done work pro bono to make sure he gets to the bottom of it, but we paid him as much as we’re going to pay him for the investigation aspect.”
Hamm went to work Nov. 12. In the days following the election, he helped establish a final count of ballots, complicated by the discovery of two sealed bags in a closet containing some 150 ballots and absentee ballots that were not being read properly by a ballot-counting machine.
“I spent a great deal of time simply trying to get the election completed,” Hamm said.
Hamm’s investigation detailed the condition of the county’s voting machines and how many were delivered to the county’s 124 precincts, reviewed how many voters came out and how long it took them to vote. He hired Duncan Buell, a University of South Carolina expert on computerized voting machines, paying him out of his own pocket, he said.
Invoices show Hamm and an assistant worked 10- to 13-hour days in November and frequently didn’t charge the county for all the hours they worked. While the records were heavily redacted to omit subject matter, they reflected hours of interviews with election staff, including McBride; deputy director Garry Baum; Cheryl Goodwin, who was in charge of voting machine maintenance; and others.
Moylan was hired by the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, not an office of county government but one that runs on public money. His legal fees of $51,078.75 will be paid by the CMRTA. The bus system will get $13.7 million a year from the sales tax for transportation approved by voters in November.
Dowdy, chairman of the elections board, which requested Hamm’s investigation, said he anticipates a final report from Hamm once a new director is on board.
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, chairman of the county’s legislative delegation that oversees the Office of Elections & Voter Registration, said he expects to get the report, too.
Richland County has no supervisory control over the elections office, and Hamm said he has “no quarrel” with council’s decision to cut off funding for his work.
“The county had little, if anything, to do with this unfortunate circumstance, and they wanted to limit how much they were paying for that,” Hamm said.
Councilman Greg Pearce said the council had an obligation to pay for lawyers involved in the election protests, filed against the county by anti-tax activist Michael Letts. “But in terms of any responsibility to pay for an investigation of what happened in that, I do not see that as the county’s responsibility.”
Pearce said there’s been “very little communication, zero” between County Council and the elections board that the county financially supports.
Washington emphasized that Hamm’s report was being prepared for the Richland County legislative delegation, not county government. “This is a delegation problem, it’s not a County Council problem,” he said.
Still, many remain eager for assurances that changes will be made at the county elections office so mistakes don’t recur.
“We’re almost six months past the election,” said Rita Paul, president of the League of Women Voters of the Columbia area. “We don’t need to forget what happened before it gets fixed.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.