Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday removed Kelvin Washington from his seat on Richland County Council.
In an executive order, Haley said she was declaring his Lower Richland council seat vacant because Washington had recently been convicted of failure to file state income tax returns for three years.
Washington also was indicted Wednesday by a Richland County grand jury on felony driving under the influence with great bodily injury, according to 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson. Washington has been absent from the past two council meetings.
Under state law, the governor has the authority to declare vacant the seat of any county or state official “convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude,” according to the governor’s office. Moral turpitude is defined as “behavior that gravely violates ... accepted moral standards of (a) community,” according to Black’s Law Dictionary.
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Failure to pay income taxes is a crime involving moral turpitude, Haley’s office said Wednesday.
The governor’s office based its action on an attorney general’s opinion it received earlier Wednesday. The opinion cited ample precedents for declaring failure to file income tax returns a crime of moral turpitude.
An attorney general’s opinion does not carry the same weight as a court ruling, and its conclusions are open to legal challenge. But attorney general’s opinions are generally given great weight in the absence of a court ruling.
Since there are more than 180 days until the next election, a special election will be held to fill the remaining time in Washington’s term of office.
In January, Washington was charged with three counts of failing to file income tax returns for 2012, 2013 and 2014 for a total $426,000 in alleged unreported income.
Last month, Washington pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges related to failure to file state income tax returns and pay taxes. Judge J. Mark Hayes ordered him to pay a $2,500 fine and $1,000 in court costs and gave him probation in lieu of jail time.
Haley’s executive order Wednesday had its origins in a March 8 letter that her chief legal counsel, Holly Pisarik, wrote to Attorney General Alan Wilson. In the letter, Pisarik asked:
▪ If three counts of failure to file income tax returns was a crime of moral turpitude, and if so, now that Washington has pleaded guilty, could the governor declare his council seat vacant?
▪ If felony DUI causing bodily injury was a crime of moral turpitude, and if so, could Washington’s seat be declared vacant if he is convicted?
▪ If an ordinary DUI charge “in either one or two instances” is a crime of moral turpitude for which an official’s seat can be declared vacant? Pisarik’s letter specifically referred to 11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers of Lexington County, who was recently charged with DUI and has a history of similar offenses. (Myers announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election.)
In a response, the attorney general’s solicitor general, Robert Cook, replied:
▪ The governor has the authority to declare vacant the office of any state or local official convicted of a crime of moral turpitude.
▪ The failure to make and file income tax returns constitutes a crime of moral turpitude.
▪ A conviction of a crime of moral turpitude “automatically creates a vacancy in the office,” and the governor can issue an order to formally vacate the office.
▪ The normal offense of DUI, even repeated offenses, do not constitute crimes of moral turpitude. “Thus, Solicitor Myers cannot be suspended or removed (from office),” the opinion said.
Cook’s opinion avoided taking a stand on whether felony DUI involving great bodily injury was a crime of moral turpitude. Such an offense “may well constitute a crime of moral turpitude,” he wrote. However, Cook concluded that since Haley was going to vacate Washington’s seat on the income tax convictions, it was not necessary to give a firm opinion on felony DUI.
Bernice Scott, who represented Lower Richland for 20 years on Richland County Council for years and is Washington’s mother-in-law, filed for the District 10 seat Wednesday morning.
“It’s not surprising,” said Scott, when told by a reporter of the governor’s decision. “I’m still running. That’s why you’ve got lawyers. Let it take its course.”
Scott retired in 2008, and Washington won the seat that year. Filing opened at noon Wednesday. Scott filed as a Democrat.
During last month’s guilty plea hearing about his income taxes at the Richland County courthouse, asked by Judge Hayes if he had anything to say, Washington, 52, said he had lost track of paying his income taxes during a time of personal and professional change.
“It was a combination of the minutiae of life, transitioning from working at the state Department of Transportation to private industry, and also taking care of the community – I didn’t just take care of my personal stuff,” Washington told a reporter after the hearing.
Washington, who once served as county council chairman, also told a reporter he “most definitely” apologized for his actions.
Washington, who holds a degree in electrical engineering from S.C. State University, worked 25-plus years for the S.C. Department of Transportation in engineering and planning. Now retired from DOT, Washington is a self-employed consultant in public relations and transportation.
Staff writers Glen Luke Flanagan and Sarah Ellis contributed.
Richland County Council chairman Torrey Rush on Wednesday said:
“We respect the decision power of the governor’s office and will work diligently as a council to further represent and respond to the needs of the citizens of District 10 and this county.
“I want to ensure the public that this body and its individual members take this matter very seriously.
“Our collective responsibility to the public is our priority and we will continue to work for the citizens of Richland County.
“In the coming days, information involving the special election for the District 10 seat will be released.”