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May 6, 2010

Council rips 'horrible decisions' of city

Columbia City Council members Wednesday publicly questioned the police department's decision to investigate Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin's April 21 car accident, characterizing it as "a series of ... horrible decisions."

Columbia City Council members Wednesday publicly questioned the police department's decision to investigate Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin's April 21 car accident, characterizing it as "a series of ... horrible decisions."

"We are wearing our credibility out," Councilman Kirkman Finlay said. "My personal opinion? It's disheartening."

Council members said city residents are complaining, loudly, about the need for an outside agency to investigate. Benjamin, too, asked for an outside investigation, on the day of the accident that seriously injured the other driver but left him unhurt.

"The impact to him (Benjamin) personally, the office of the mayor and the city has been profound," said Finlay, who lost to Benjamin in the mayor's race.

Council members will meet again Friday, when they could vote to ask the state Highway Patrol to take over the investigation - but not if Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter has anything to do with it.

The retired Marine on Wednesday sent a letter to state Attorney General Henry McMaster, asking him if it is legal for council to compel him to do anything, including briefing council members on the investigation's status.

Efforts to reach Carter on Wednesday were unsuccessful. Police spokesman Brick Lewis said Carter will not comment on the investigation.

Council members bristled Wednesday over Carter's request to the attorney general's office. Council had asked Carter to attend their Friday meeting but weren't necessarily expecting a briefing on the investigation, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said. Council members want the chief to respond to the public's concerns over conflicts of interest.

"It appears he is very reluctant to listen to reason," Devine said. "When you have someone who is the chief of police who handles all types of investigations and who is supposed to instill confidence in people and he's not willing to hear the concerns from the public about this investigation, it concerns me that he doesn't have the temperament to be police chief of the city of Columbia."

Mark Plowden, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the staff will work as quickly as possible to release an opinion on Carter's request. But it may be a challenge to complete an opinion in one day.

There is no state law, attorney general's opinion or state ethics policy on how local police should handle traffic accidents involving public officials. However, Plowden noted that even if such a law or policy existed, it would not apply to Benjamin, who has not been sworn into office. Until Benjamin takes his oath of office, scheduled for July 1, he is not considered a public official, Plowden said.

Still, there is no reason the police department could not ask for an outside investigation to avoid the appearance of conflict, Plowden said.

Cathy Hazelwood, an attorney for the S.C. Ethics Commission, agreed there was nothing standing the way of Columbia police asking for outside help.

"Do I think the better part of valor would have been for the city of Columbia to stay out of it? Absolutely," she said.

The decision for the city to investigate will always haunt Benjamin, no matter the outcome, she said.

"For a certain group, he's always going to be the one at fault because the city investigated it," Hazelwood said.

Council's public criticism of Carter comes after days of quietly pushing for the state Highway Patrol to take over the investigation, according to e-mails obtained by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Mayor Bob Coble sent at least two e-mails to city attorney Ken Gaines, city manager Steve Gantt and assistant city manager Mike King on April 25, that expressed his desire for the S.C. Highway Patrol to take the lead.

"I certainly hope that Chief Carter will ask the Highway Patrol to review the Steve Benjamin accident investigation," Coble wrote in one e-mail, obtained by The State newspaper through a Freedom of Information request.

On April 23, Carter held a press conference during which he told reporters his officers would remain in charge. The department, Carter said, was capable of performing a thorough and accurate investigation.

Devine said she watched the press conference and could not believe what she was hearing. "... I think common sense could have prevailed very early on," she said.

Coble sent his e-mails to city staff the Sunday after the press conference. He had been on a family trip to Washington, D.C., over the weekend but wrote in one e-mail that he had been "getting calls throughout the day on the city not bringing in the Highway Patrol."

"I believe the credibility of the city and the investigation is at stake," Coble wrote. "Clearly there is a conflict with the City Police investigating the Mayor-elect just as if it were the Mayor. It would seem we have an obligation to avoid the appearance of a conflict as well."

Benjamin has said little about the investigation, saying it would be inappropriate for him to do so.

"It's important he not do anything to interfere," his spokesman Michael Wukela said.

Wednesday, reacting to what they said was public pressure, council members were ready to enact a new policy that would require the police department to turn over any investigations involving the Columbia city manager, assistant city managers, council members or council members-elect. Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who proposed the policy, also wanted to include in the resolution language that would ask the Highway Patrol to take over the Benjamin accident investigation.

"It would help remove a cloud of uncertainty in the eyes of our citizens and residents," Gergel said.

But council members delayed the vote until Friday morning, giving Gaines, the city attorney, time to make sure the resolution would not violate state laws about interfering with criminal investigations.

"You've got to keep in mind this is a criminal investigation, although it was a traffic accident," Gaines told council members. "I am very uncomfortable with you directing anything in conjunction with this investigation."

Howard Duvall, the former longtime executive director of the S.C. Municipal Association, said the city manager can tell the police chief to hand over the investigation to another agency. "It's not like ordering him not to charge somebody with a DUI," Duvall said. "There's not any obstruction of justice by asking for a third-party investigation."

Council members questioned the consistency of the police department's investigative policies after Councilman Sam Davis revealed in City Council's morning meeting that he was involved in a fender bender in the City Hall parking lot in November 2008. Columbia police, under the leadership of Carter, asked the state Highway Patrol to handle that investigation.

"I have no explanation for that," said Mike King, assistant city manager for public safety.

Finlay wanted to know why the department would call the Highway Patrol for Davis's minor accident and not for Benjamin's wreck, which critically injured a local waitress.

"What about the rear-ending in a parking lot was so much more concerning?" Finlay asked.

During his April 23 news conference, Carter said two officers are leading the investigation. He said they have a combined 23 years of experience and they investigate 150 accidents a year.

"The skill set is there," Carter said. "I feel fairly comfortable based on history we can produce a quality investigation."

But Devine said Carter does not understand how many in the public perceive the investigation as being favorable toward Benjamin, who campaigned on a platform of providing more resources to the police department.

To Carter, "it boils down to whether or not they're capable of handling it," Devine said. "That's sad, because he's missing the point on the appearance issue. He doesn't see that."

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